Movie Review: H is for Happiness (2020)

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Based upon Barry Jonsberg's award-winning young adult novel “My Life as an Alphabet,” “H is for Happiness” is quirky with a capital Q. With high key lighting and vibrant primary and secondary colors, which are wonderfully captured by cinematographer Bonnie Elliott (as well as Rick Rifici who shot the water photography), the film is as gorgeously rendered as the illustrations in the Little Golden Books series of titles that we read as children at bedtime.

Yet, in blending together Eleanor H. Porter's “Pollyanna” and Roald Dahl's “Matilda,” (both of which were famously brought to the screen by directors David Swift and Danny DeVito respectively), “H is for Happiness” plays best as an exercise in style over substance. 

Following the exploits of a tirelessly optimistic, terribly bright twelve-year-old girl named Candice Phee (played with gusto by newcomer Daisy Axon), this Australian import finds Candice taking it upon herself to try to put her broken family back together again. Essentially ignored by her overwhelmed parents (played by Emma Booth and Richard Roxburgh), Candice tries to cure her mom's depression following the death of her younger sister years earlier and also mend her father's rift with her Rich Uncle Brian (Joel Jackson). 

Initially, she attempts to do this alone but soon Candice finds help in the form of her new classmate Douglas Benson from Another Dimension (Wesley Patten). Becoming fast friends with the peculiar boy who, as Candice's name for him implies, believes he is from another dimension and dreams of falling out of a tree to land back in his correct universe, our precociously bright leads strive to set everything right throughout “H”'s ninety-eight-minute running time.

Inspired after she tries to stop her classmates from ridiculing her disabled teacher (Miriam Margolyes) – whose constantly bobbling eye feels like it came right out of an unpublished Roald Dahl manuscript – Candice goes right to work. From preparing an elaborate Nashville themed evening for her country music loving mom to taking a page from “The Parent Trap” in trying to get her father and Rich Uncle Brian back together again, “H” means well but its endlessly cloying tone ensures that every emotional moment feels like its being shouted at you rather than genuinely earned.

Freely admitting that his feature filmmaking debut was influenced by the work of John Hughes, Wes Anderson, and Pedro Almodovar, although director John Sheedy's approach to “H” sounds thrilling in theory, a large part of the film's problem is that numerous scenes feel like they belong in one of those auteur's movies as opposed to a new confection made up of all three. Moving uneasily from a Hughes-like scene of burgeoning love between the two preteens to the sardonic Andersonesque fear of her friend jumping out of a tree to an odd gag with an inflatable beach ball boob rig that Almodovar would gravitate to in a heartbeat, this self-consciously quirky, inconsistent movie is all over the place.

Set on the stunningly beautiful Australian coastal town of Albany and adapted from the novel by Lisa Hoppe, Sheedy's well-intentioned film is as lovely to look at as a storybook but plays like there was an error at the printer's and three disparate tales were bound together instead of one.

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