It's a wonderful feeling when a film really takes you by surprise. I didn't know much about 'H is for Happiness' going into this film, bar that it premiered at MIFF 2019, and that it's based off the award-winning young adult novel 'My Life as an Alphabet' by Barry Jonsberg. My expectations were low, but I was willing to give it a go, especially as it's imperative to continue supporting Australian cinema. And let me tell you, this film absolutely delivers on so many levels, and I was so pleased to be proven wrong.
The film opens with the introduction to the life of Candice Phee, played by Australian newcomer Daisy Axon ('Judy & Punch'), a 12-year-old girl who is unflinchingly honest, smart and hilariously forthright, but above all else, brazenly optimistic. It appears at first to be a tale about a typical girl entering adolescence in the small town of Albany in Western Australia, but the curtain is quickly drawn back, and we learn more about Candice's family, who are in complete disarray. Her mum (Emma Booth, TV's 'The Gloaming' and 'Once Upon a Time') has been living with depression since the death of Candice's baby sister Sky, while her dad (Richard Roxburgh, 'Moulin Rouge', TV's 'Rake') and his brother - Candice's beloved and ever-supportive Rich Uncle Brian (Joel Jackson, 'Jungle') - are not on speaking terms after a business deal fallout. Luckily for Candice, she meets Douglas Benson From Another Dimension (Wesley Patten), a quirky kid from out of town who, whilst trying to find his way back to his own dimension in the universe, finds the time to help Candice plot and scheme a way for her family to be happy again.
Right from the get-go, this feels like an essential family viewing experience. If H is for happiness, it should also be for heartwarming and heartfelt. Renown Australian theatre director John Sheedy crafts an elegant and uncompromising picture. The Albany backdrop is so beautifully put together by the production design team, and yet the film is equally unwavering when it comes to showing the darker side of the story - and there is plenty of it. Candice feels like "happiness has emigrated... and left no forwarding address," and it's hard to disagree with her. She tries so hard to mend her broken family and make friends at school, but things are not always as simple as they seem. Tragedy is sewn throughout the plot, and screenwriter Lisa Hoppe wonderfully channels the pathos from page to screen.
Sheedy does a nice job of using Candice as our lens to this story. We see everything from her perspective and therefore are not necessarily privy to all the information, as should be the case for any 12-year-old. Ultimately, this is about a young girl growing up, trying to hold on to the world she once knew. Axon does a terrific job of holding it all together, as the rest of the cast really stand on her shoulders. It must be said that they are all fantastic. It can be so easy to over-act some of these scenes or feel above the story you are trying to tell, but there is a feeling of great respect to the material amongst everyone involved.
If H is for happiness, it should also be for heartwarming and heartfelt
I am not the target audience here, but even I really appreciated the moments of laughter and felt the frustrations of growing up. There is one scene in particular where Douglas Benson From Another Dimension (sorry, but the name is too good not to say in full every time) gives a birthday present to Candice, and it had me in stitches. There is a maturity from Sheedy to know when to make the audience feel good to laugh, and when to bring the tempo down at the appropriate times. This story touches on some very important issues, and it's so refreshing to see a family movie address those issues in a meaningful and honest way.
To talk about why this wasn't the perfect film for me would go too much into spoiler territory, and we wouldn't want that. The cynic in me wanted this film to express their concluding point in more subtle ways, but it's important to remember that this film is targeted to young adults, and therefore should act more as a take-home conversation-starter, rather than anything more concrete.
There are genuinely touching moments, quirky characters, laughter and a closing musical number. I'm not sure what else you could ask for when taking the family to the cinema.
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