The internet is a wonderful thing. It grants me the ability to say whatever I want about whatever I want, and it doesn’t matter how I look, so you, the reader, will focus on what I say rather than my appearance. Even if I forget to wipe the Cheeto dust off my shirt, people on Facebook will totally take my opinions on Trump seriously without thinking I’m just some kind of useless slob who likes to partake in the occasional cheesy snack to go along with political palaver in my mother’s basement.
Director/writer Alexandre Franchi’s film HAPPY FACE is a film about appearances. It’s about the struggles faced by people categorized by the outward, rather than inward. The cast of HAPPY FACE may be burned, scarred, or otherwise unique, but that doesn’t mean that the personalities beneath have been obfuscated.
Vanessa (Debbie Lynch-White) – a young woman with self-confidence issues stemming from her weight – runs a support group for the facially-different, where folks with unique appearances can come along and commiserate with others who share the same experience of being outcast and discarded by society. Everyone is there to find help, except one is an imposter. Stan (Robin L’Houmeau) attends the meetings with his face wrapped in bandages and pretends to be one of them.
Stan – a good looking 19-year-old who’s popular with the ladies – feels the need to be someone else. When he’s not infiltrating support groups, he plays Dungeons and Dragons, and regrettably, must look after his cancer-stricken mother with whom he shares an awkward relationship. Stan is searching for a way to deal with his own demons and reconnect with his mother, which leads him to his odd, deceptive behaviors. When the other members of the support group find out he isn’t who he says he is, they go on a journey of emotional discovery together.
HAPPY FACE obviously comes from a very personal place and is almost universal in its themes. Most can relate to being an outcast at some point in their lives, and Franchi tells a charming story which is strangely romantic and fresh throughout.
Franchi has brought together an incredible group of folks who just happen to look a little different to the norm. The cast is the real heart of the film, and they give excellent performances despite being first timers. Franchi reportedly put out a casting call to real-life support groups for the facially-different and the response was one of enthusiasm, with folks coming forward to star in the film, viewing it as a form of catharsis.
There are some wonderful screen personalities discovered in HAPPY FACE, and I hope some of them are able to find more work in the industry in the future. The irony here is that that these people are portrayed as in need of support groups to bolster their confidence when they’re more than happy to step in front of the camera and be more convincing than a lot of so-called “professional” actors can manage in big budget productions. The bravery doesn’t stop there, as the non-facially-different leads of the film have no qualms with shedding all inhibitions on a number of occasions.
While there’s a danger that a film like this could potentially lean into exploitation of its subjects, Franchi manages to keep HAPPY FACE above water, handling the topic with finesse from a position of empathy and respect. If I was to offer any sort of criticism, the second half whittles down the cast (for practical reasons no doubt) and strays a little more into silliness than the preceding chunk of the run time. I understand why, but there are some scenes that feel a little out of place.
Other than that, this is a film well worth your time.
Now excuse me, I’ve cracked open a fresh bag of treats and have some arguments waiting for me on Facebook…