Happy Face. 2019. Directed by Alexandre Franchi. Screenplay by Franchi & Joelle Bourjolly.
Starring Robin L’Houmeau, Debbie Lynch-White, David Roche, E.R. Ruiz, Alison Midstokke, Cyndy Nicholsen, Sarvie Golenasheh, & Noémie Kocher.
Les Films de la Mancha / Line & Content
Not Rated. 100 minutes.
Alexandre Franchi has been on Father Gore’s to-watch list since his feature-length debut The Wild Hunt a decade ago. It was a great and genuinely unique film. Ten years later the director-writer’s back. He and co-writer Joelle Bourjolly tell a story that touches on issues so prevalent in film, and the industry as a whole, it may as well be about the medium itself.
Happy Face attacks the beauty obsession that touches all facets of our society, not only visual mediums, by focusing on a support group made up of people who many will callously deem ‘ugly.’ But, oh, are they beautiful! And their radiant beauty helps a lost young man, Stan (played like a dream by Robin L’Houmeau in his film debut), free himself of debilitating fear while freeing them of their own.
The central cast from the story’s support group, aside from L’Houmeau, are actually first-time actors. Franchi put out casting calls to actual support groups for people who are facially different. He was able to find people who wanted to be on film and their personal experience shines through the story. All their tales of isolation, rejection, and pain of every kind, both corporeal and existential, lend such important reality to this piece of fiction. Franchi avoids any sense of exploitation by the way he centres these people in the plot: it’s as much about them as actual human beings as it is about the semi-fictional characters they play.
“Embrace the myth”
Society’s beauty obsession isn’t only evident by how people treat others they see as looking outside the norm. It’s ingrained so far below the skin of Western culture particularly we often can’t see all the ways it affects us, diluted into our everyday being. Advertising constantly pounds us into submission until we barely recognise what is/isn’t propaganda assaulting our sense of identity. For those who fall outside the socially acceptable spectrum of beauty, their body can feel like an enemy, turned inward and weaponised by nebulous standards and shallow people.
It was Socrates who wrote: “Beauty is a short–lived tyranny.” This statement only becomes truer today in a social media-addicted world. The support group’s leader, Vanessa (Debbie Lynch-White), is a fat woman whose own body has rendered her a “second–class citizen” similar to those she tries to help. She isn’t facially different, yet she’s treated the same by people who place value on certain types of beauty and shun the ones they deem as valueless.
Vanessa and the others eventually discover Stan isn’t facially different and initially, rightfully, feel it’s a betrayal of trust, obliterating the safe space where they share their deepest fears and pains. Instead it becomes a way for them to gain insight into the thoughts of those who treat them with disdain, due to the fact Stan harbours his own flaws related to watching his once beautiful mother physically deteriorate, the cancer withering her into someone nearly unrecognisable. Stan and the support group find strength in each other: he learns to heal his inner ugliness, they learn to use their differences against the ugliness within others.
The group come to fully understand how the problem is with the world around them. They knew this already— seeing Stan confront his own inner ugliness only helps them fully grasp how someone like him, seemingly beautiful on the outside, can actually be hideous on the inside. Stan isn’t a bad person – his battle with beauty’s related to his mother’s cancer – and he overcomes his issues, however, he stands as an example for this dichotomy of appearance. His facially different friends see their perceived ugliness is anything but, only ever actually revealing the disfigured, judgemental, and intolerant face of society, no matter how hard we try to hide it or pretend we’ve made things any easier on those who don’t fit the prescribed model of beauty.
“They want you to go away, vanish— but you won’t.”
An important image briefly seen around Stan’s room is the painting Ulysses and the Sirens by Herbert James Draper, painted in 1909. This is a famous depiction of a scene from Homer’s Odyssey in which Ulysses is forced to look at the sirens. The sirens, in mythology, were traditionally depicted as hideous creatures with beautiful voices, using their song to draw men out to the sea where they’d be killed. Draper’s vision of this scene from the Odyssey takes perceived ugliness and turns it into beauty, rendered palatable to the Romanticist’s eye, sexualising the female form into what’s considered acceptably beautiful. The image fits so well with the way media forces the concept of beauty into a tiny box, effectively casting out the facially different, the fat, the too-thin, the disabled, and so on. Draper’s transformation of the sirens from an image of supposed ugliness to one of approved aesthetic beauty is indicative of the ways media, in its various incarnations, sanitises the faces/bodies of those it deems ‘ugly.’
In opposition to the high art of Draper sits what some (fools) consider low art: Dungeons and Dragons. For so many, such as Father Gore himself, D&D was the official game of the outcast. It’s a home, welcoming of all who feel socially isolated, where the so-called freaks, monsters, and misfits gather to work together as a community to conquer all varieties of fantastical, horrifying obstacles. D&D doesn’t conform to the outside world, allowing people to escape into an existence not dictated by beauty standards, one that celebrates strengths instead of rejecting differences, and it’s via this model Stan helps his support group buddies understand their unique powers.
In a further extension of culture, the film also ends on a bittersweet note when Vanessa discovers the internet. She’s told it’s a place where people “focus on what you have to say” instead of on your race, your religion, or how you look— if only! On one hand, the world wide web does offer a sense of community where people can find others like them and, often, thrive. On the other hand, it’s likewise made up of harmful communities that all too often encourage and revel in the mockery of those who are different than the societal norm. The internet’s a double-edged sword, and Franchi ends things here on a tongue-in-cheek moment illustrating this so well.
Franchi’s film is bold, funny, semi-non-fictional, and fantastically subversive. He gives the audience a beautiful story while opening up a window into the soul. The men and women of the support group ARE their characters, they live through these experiences daily, and to see them here, given a slightly fictional outlet for catharsis, is somehow more powerful than a documentary or a film that’s wholly fictional (while the plot is made up, the people here are absolutely non-fictional). Although all these first-time actors do a great job, David Roche (as Otis) and Cyndy Nicholsen (as Beckie a.k.a Buck) are the two standouts, and it would be a pleasure to see them onscreen again, in any shape or form.
Happy Face is a unique and wonderful experience.
See this when you can and let its sweetness wash over you.