Movie Review: Happiness Runs (2010)

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Obviously to remove confusion and adolescent cries of hypocrisy, it'd be ideal if parents could be the ones to model the behavior they expect from their teens yet in some cases, the best that can be hoped is to preach, “Do as I say, not as I do.”

However, if you're born and raised on a commune as the unexpected real-life children of the “flower children,” where freedom reigns supreme and rules don't apply, “do as I say and do” gets replaced with just simply "do whatever," which is one hell of a disastrous approach to preparing children for life that doesn't include orgies, self-destructive tendencies, promiscuity, and rampant drug abuse.

Every generation longs to escape but escapism is at its most dangerous when you live in a community built as a form of escapism from the real world, thereby necessitating occupants like our teenage protagonist Victor (Mark L. Young) and his friends to go to horrific extremes to vacate the premises whether it's just mentally or indeed physically.

With no background consisting of parental supervision or discussion of what is or is not appropriate behavior, the kids of the commune spend a typical day either getting wasted or laid or dealing with the after effects of similar behavior with little doubt that this agenda will stay the same for the rest of their lives.

A realistically bleak portrait where happiness is fleeting and tragedy lurks around every act from debut filmmaker Adam Sherman who based the film on his own life, the work, which is being distributed in a limited theatrical run by Strand Releasing takes an experimental approach.

The technique serves its material well inter-cutting footage that looks like archived news reels from the late '60s with the hippie inspired hangover of that same existence seen twenty years later, this time filtered through consumerism, greed, and hard rock.

As the film opens, viewers begin instantly rooting for Victor who longs to escape the commune and return to the real world, which is contrary to his uninvolved parents' wishes including his independently wealthy mother (Andie MacDowell) who signs endless checks and her savings away to the charismatic yet creepy guru leader of the group.

Yet when he receives word that his beautiful friend and (whenever it suits her) sometime lover Becky (Hanna Hall) has returned from school to take care of her terminally ill father, Victor's plans to raise enough money by selling weed to fund his one-way trip out are challenged by his feelings for Becky that have blossomed into love.

Unable to understand her need to seduce every willing male in sight to try and jolt her from her emotionally numb stupor, Victor stands by as she starts to self-destruct, unsure of how to prevent the inevitable crash before it's too late as the film begins coasting towards its predictably tragic conclusion just the way that actress Hall's earlier film The Virgin Suicides did as well.

While it isn't as lyrical as Sofia Coppola's gorgeously delicate yet devastating portrait of The Lisbon Sisters, Sherman's debut displays an awful lot of cinematographic skill particularly in his knack for exploring contradictory emotions in such a beautiful and true way not to mention the way he makes you feel that you know far more about the thinly drawn characters than what we're presented because he isn't afraid of letting silence into sequences that display the sheer skill of his actors.

However, as fascinating as the subject matter is and as especially striking as the charismatic performance of Hall is throughout, Happiness Runs is only half successful as we always know exactly where the film is running to and with so much raw talent, it would've been nice to really explore the young cast of characters in a more concrete way a la The Virgin Suicides or 12 and Holding.

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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.