The first of those movies to hit the “Coming Soon” lists is Another Happy Day, featuring a real tour-de-force performance by Ellen Barkin. It’s scheduled for theatrical release November 4, so you will get a chance in the foreseeable future to find out for yourself why Barkin won the 2011 Maverick Excellence in Acting Award from WFF. Another Happy Day premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for its 25-year-old writer and first-time director Sam Levinson, son of veteran director Barry Levinson.
Both Barkin and Levinson, along with three of the younger cast members, attended the question-and-answer session after the film’s East Coast premiere at Upstate Films in Rhinebeck this past weekend. On the way out of the theatre, I overheard another audience member say, “That was great – I loved and hated every character!” That’s a good clue as to what makes Another Happy Day different from your run-of-the-mill Hollywood “dramedy” whose story is organized around a wedding in a dysfunctional family. Widely compared to Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married, which also sports an indie-flavored disregard for conventional happy/sappy resolutions, Another Happy Day is at times painful to sit through – but in a way that’s good for keeping your mind from going mushy. It doesn’t pander.
In her younger days, Barkin’s angular facial planes helped suit her for roles as a saucy vixen with a spine of steel; but time has weathered them in a way that has become perfect for conveying the enduring spirit that sustains a tenderhearted character through a history of ever-renewing emotional damage. She is absolutely riveting as Lynn, the high-strung mother of two sons from her second marriage, who still live with her, and a grown son and daughter from her first marriage who don’t.
The eldest son, Dylan (Michael Nardelli), is the one getting married; Lynn having lost a bitter custody battle, he grew up mostly in the home of his father Paul (Thomas Haden Church) and stepmother Patty (Demi Moore). Lynn heads for the wedding in dread of what might happen when her fragile daughter Alice (Kate Bosworth), who has just managed to finish getting a college degree after a stint in a mental institution, is forced to interact at the clan gathering with the father whom she has avoided for six years.
Lynn comes off so touchy that it’s not clear at first whether her perceptions of what’s going on in her kids’ heads are real or imagined, but it turns out that her radar is mostly spot-on: Alice clearly remembers the incident at age 4, before her parents’ divorce, when she clung to her mother’s leg as her father punched Lynn in the face – even if her mother has mostly blocked out the memory. She hated the summers that she had to spend with Paul per the terms of the custody agreement and has no wish to spend any more time with him; but in the true family tradition of avoidance, Alice takes to cutting herself and ends up institutionalized. Not without reason, Lynn fears a relapse under the spotlight of the very public family occasion.
Another item on the wedding menu that Lynn is not looking forward to in the least is the inevitable drag through the mud by her mother Doris (Ellyn Burstyn) and sisters (Siobhan Fallon and Diana Scarwid), who all mock Lynn’s reliance on “psychology” and constantly scuttle her desperate efforts to initiate an honest conversation with someone, anyone, about the ancient family issues that divide them. Chief among these, from Lynn’s point of view, is the fact that none of her blood relatives took her side against Paul, leaving her without the resources that she needed to win a fair custody settlement. Doris in particular disapproved of the divorce, and breaks yet another little piece off Lynn’s heart by primping her hair while flirting with Paul on the phone, oblivious to the effect on her daughter.
Communication, or the stubborn avoidance of it, is the movie’s main theme, as director Levinson said after the screening. These people are not lovable kooks in the usual Hollywood mode; they are self-absorbed and swimming in denial at best and downright cruel at worst. Rarely seen without martinis or margaritas in hand, Lynn’s gossipy sisters and goofy brothers-in-law can’t seem to understand why Lynn refuses to take the easy way out and self-medicate. But while they won’t face real issues in their own relationships, they love to blame and exaggerate, not always caring about whether the person they’re insulting is within earshot. They treat their senile and ailing father Joe (George Kennedy) like part of the furniture, even though he’s lucid more often than anyone notices and hears what they say about him. So does Ben (Daniel Yelsky), Lynn’s pre-pubescent youngest son. He has a mild case of Asperger’s Syndrome and is socially awkward, but knows that he’s not autistic, as his aunts aver.
Even more troubled is Ben’s 17-year-old brother Elliott (Ezra Miller), who is following in the family tradition of self-medication for his depression and anxiety; he has already been in drug rehab four times. Elliott serves as sort of a Greek chorus for our story: Lynn claims that he has Tourette’s Syndrome, but maybe he’s just the kind of smart-alecky, too-smart-for-his-own-good teenager who never knows when to censor his own random observations or give people a rest from having their boundaries tested. Often he’s right on the mark, such as when he calls his aunts “solipsists,” but he pushes his mother too close to the edge far too often – and sometimes beyond it.
That said, Elliott is also the only one of her blood kin who comes to Lynn’s side in her darkest moment, when she has been verbally punched in the face a few more times by several of her “nearest and dearest.” Barkin’s facial expressions as it finally sinks in that Lynn will never, ever find an ally among her family – except perhaps her children – are Oscar-worthy all by themselves. And Miller, although often irritating to listen to, proves himself a young actor with talent that bears watching as his career progresses. He has been a regular on two TV series: Damien in Californication (2008) and Tucker Bryant on Royal Pains (2009-10). He’ll have the title spot in We Need to Talk about Kevin, coming out this year, and appear next year in the Emma Watson vehicle The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
Another performance worth mentioning is Demi Moore’s Patty, the controlling second wife who can’t muster the grace to accept her stepson’s decision to walk his biological mother down the aisle to her seat at the wedding ceremony. Patty is the most over-the-top in this stew of over-the-top characters, and Moore portrays her as a slutty, hip-swaying babe who dresses way too young for her age and relishes rubbing Lynn’s nose in the influence that Patty has over Lynn’s own kids. At least somebody’s having fun at this rather grim party.
But although there’s no pat happy ending to Another Happy Day, it’s not all pain and suffering. Dark humor abounds, especially in Elliott’s sarcastic adolescent soliloquies. And Ellen Barkin’s face can be as luminous with pride when Lynn’s kids come through in the clutch as it can be crumpled with defeat when the rest of her family pushes her away. It’s a movie worth seeing for her performance alone. And I think that we can expect great things in the future from this young director as well. Catch it when it comes to town.