First-time filmmaker, Anne Sewitsky’s “Happy, Happy” got a whole lot happier recently when it was made the official Norwegian entry for a Best Foreign Film Oscar. But while this character dramady set in a frozen countryside has warmth and humanity with a subtle sense of humor, it’s hardly an Oscar film.

Happy, Happy + poster

Happy, Happy Movie Poster

 

Kaia (Agnes Kittelsen) is a “happy” woman. She wears her contentment like a shawl over her shoulders to protect her from the cold, cruel world around her. When “Happy, Happy” starts, that world is populated by two – her vicious son, Theo and her closeted gay husband, Eirik (Joachim Rafaelsen). They are soon joined by the perfect couple who rent the house next door — easygoing Sigve (Henrik Rafaelsen), along with his wife, ice-princess lawyer Elisabeth (Maibritt Saerens) and their adopted Ethiopian son, Noa.

 

At first, Kaia draws vicarious happiness from her new neighbors, but soon makes a play for Sigve by going down on him while their spouses are in the other room. In the meantime, Theo (Oskar Hernaes Brandso) has introduced Noa (Ram Shihab Ebedy) to a new game called slave in which the poor kid has to do everything he’s told. Pretty soon infidelity abounds with grownups acting like children and children, in case of Theo, acting like monsters.

Happy, Happy + actors

From left to right. Joachim Rafaelsen, Agnes Kittelsen, Maibritt Saerens and Henrik Rafaelsen

 

In the end, nothing much is solved and there are no real conclusions to draw, which is one of the film’s weaknesses, or strengths, depending on how you look at it. Sewitsky is too smart a filmmaker to judge her characters, wisely leaving that to the audience. She demonstrates a strong hand working with her ensemble and uses winter landscapes to great effect, reflecting tone and alienation.

 

Agnes Kittelsen as Kaia is first among equals in the ensemble, delivering a warm, dazzling and eccentric performance. Kaia wears her emotions on her sleeve, so alive on the inside she’s unable to contain herself. She pursues sex with Sigve for good reasons – she hasn’t had sex in a year, Sigve is estranged from his wife, he makes Kaia happy and she does the same for him. That doesn’t make it right, but still – who’s to judge?

 

Happy, Happy + Kaia and Sigve

Kaia (Agnes Kittelsen) and Sigve (Henrik Rafaelsen)

Henrik Rafaelson is a warm and amiable presence as Sigve. Cuckolded by Elisabeth in their back story, he is wounded and feeling a bit trapped in his marriage. Beyond that, there’s not much more going on with him. Eirik is likewise sketched in by Ragnhild Tronvoll who hangs her story on the slightest of plots, requiring strong characterizations and conflicts to take up the slack.

 

Affairs of the heart are always adequate issues to build a story around but Tronvoll’s characters are a bit too thin, particularly the men. In fact, “Happy, Happy” doesn’t seem to care much about its male characters at all, employing lust as a lazy fall-back motivation. “Happy, Happy” could have been a pointless bore but for the deft hand of Sewitsky whose work with Kittelsen and the rest of the cast, as well as cinematographer, Anna Myking, demonstrates a keen grasp of her craft.

Happy, Happy + Agnes Kittelsen

Kaia (Agnes Kittelsen)

 

Winner of the World Cinema Jury Prize at Sundance and other accolades aside, “Happy, Happy” does not live up to its promise. It’s an adequate character piece, mostly well-crafted and superbly acted but barely memorable. That’s not to say it won’t be nominated for an Oscar. With standards being what they are, who’s to say “Happy, Happy” can’t take home a little gold next winter?

*** (out of four)

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