Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: John Sheedy
Stars: Daisy Axon, Richard Roxburgh, Emma Booth, Joel Jackson, Wesley Patten, Alessandra Tognini, Miriam Margolyes, Deborah Mailman, George Shevtsov.
And Q is for quirky. H Is For Happiness is another quirky Australian production with a decidedly offbeat sensibility that will not exactly be to everyone’s taste.
Set in the picturesque Western Australian seaside town of Albany, the film follows the boundlessly optimistic, precocious and geeky freckle-faced 12-year old Candice Phee (newcomer Daisy Axon, recently seen in Judy & Punch) as she attempts to heal her dysfunctional family and rekindle the spark of happiness in their lives. As she puts it: “happiness has emigrated… and left not forwarding address.” Her mother Claire (Emma Booth, from Hounds Of Love, etc) has become withdrawn and bedridden following the death of her baby daughter Sky from SIDS a couple of years earlier. Her computer scientist father Jim (Richard Roxburgh, recently seen in Go!, another WA set family friendly film) is estranged from his rich brother Brian (Joel Jackson, from Jungle, etc) following a bitter fallout over a business deal gone wrong.
Candice makes it her mission to heal the rift in her family. She believes that she has an opportunity when her eccentric teacher Miss Bamford (Miriam Margolyes, from Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, etc), who has a wandering eye, sets the class an assignment for the upcoming Open Day. Each student is assigned a letter of the alphabet and has to create a presentation around that letter. Candice is assigned H.
She forms a quick friendship with the new student in class Douglas Benson (played by newcomer Wesley Patten), who believes that he is visiting from another parallel time continuum. He believes that by jumping out of a tree he will be able to return to his own dimension. Candice refers to him continually as “Douglas From Another Dimension”. And Candice also forms a friendship with mean girl Jen Marshall (Alessandra Tognini), as they are forced to work together on a school project.
H Is For Happiness is based on the award-winning 2013 Young Adult novel My Life As An Alphabet, written by Barry Jonsberg. The novel has been adapted to the screen by Lisa Hoppe (Heartbreak High, etc) who suffuses it with touches of magic and whimsy. It deals with some weighty themes of grief, loss, angst, mental illness, dysfunctional families, bullying, the vicissitudes of daily life, puberty, romance, but it does so in refreshingly honest fashion.
H Is For Happiness marks the feature film debut for director John Sheedy, a veteran of the theatre scene who has previously made the award-winning short film Mrs McCutcheon in 2017. The film has been nicely shot on location by Bonnie Elliot (Palm Beach, etc) and Rick Rafici (who provided the stunning underwater visuals for Breath, etc) and who use a bright, saturated colour palette to gove the material a hyper-realistic look.
H Is For Happiness shares some thematic similarities with another quirky and off beat local production, the award winning 2015 film Girl Asleep. With its surreal touches, darker themes, vibrant colour scheme and droll humour, the film is also reminiscent of the idiosyncratic stylings of Wes Anderson. The production design from Nicki Gardiner (Lion, etc) and the costumes from Terri Lamera (Breath, etc) add to the film’s distinctive tone and look.
Despite their inexperience, Axon and Patten bring plenty of youthful energy and vigour to their performances. Catherine Moore registers as an officious relief teacher, while Deborah Mailman brings warmth and empathy to her small role as Penelope, Douglas’ mother.
However, there is something of a clunky and disjointed feel to the early scenes that initially make it hard to engage with the stories and the characters. It is also tonally uneven, with many scenes of a darker nature contrasting uneasily with some more whimsical or fanciful moments. And it all builds to an unusual ending that is far from ordinary.