Movie Review: 'H is for Happiness' is Just Wonderful
Perhaps my new favorite movie of 2020, H is for Happiness brought me joy, warmth, sadness and laughter in equal measure.
The family comedy H is for Happiness is like a lightning bolt of joy directly to your soul. I’m being hyperbolic but I can’t help myself, I adore this brilliant little Aussie family flick. So joyous is H is for Happiness that it is the rare movie that can play Katrina & the Waves classic new wave hit, Walking on Sunshine, over the end credits and truly have the song encapsulate the joy this movie contains.
The delightful Daisy Axon stars in H is for Happiness as Candice Phee. Candice is an unusual young lady and she knows it. Her big smile and indomitable, 12 year old spirit places her at odds with her peers who’ve begun to wear the disaffection that comes with becoming a teenager. Cynicism has no place in Candice’s world however, a world where colors are bright and there is still a little magic in blowing the seeds off of a dandelion.
Candice’s home is also at odds with her disposition. Several years ago, Candice’s baby sister died in her crib. Candice was devastated but with the strength of a child, she’s bounced back and takes comfort that her sister, whom she calls Sky, though she was named Francis, is somewhere in the universe. Candice’s mother, sadly, has not bounced back. Four years since the death of her baby and Mom or Claire (Emma Booth), rarely leaves her bedroom.
Similarly, Candice’s father, Jim (Richard Roxburgh), has suffered multiple losses. His baby daughter, his wife who has withdrawn, and his relationship with his brother, Brian (Joel Jackson), whom he had a falling out with over money. Jim has retreated to his work where he’s desperate to uncover a life changing new app or algorithm. Jim is still loving toward Candice but also deeply, painfully distracted.
Candice has an assignment in class to bring to life her life in the alphabet, hence the title, H is for Happiness. Candice is to deliver a presentation to her class ,and visiting parents, about her life through the lens of an assigned letter of the alphabet. To be prepared, the children must examine each letter of the alphabet and an aspect of their life that begins with each letter. Candice is assigned H and settles on the topic of Happiness. But, seeing no happiness at home, Candice decides she must deliver happiness to her family by any means necessary.
Naturally, Candice will learn a lesson that happiness cannot simply be given to others, it has to be felt. Thus, when we arrive at the end of the movie and the big presentation, I was floored by the utterly brilliant, hilarious and just darn lovely choice that Candice makes to present the word H. It’s nothing you will ever be able to predict and the surprise is just astonishing. It could not have happened any other way and I am living for the choice.
At school, Candice is thrown for a loop with the arrival of Douglas Benson (Wesley Patten). Douglas is assigned to sit next to her as the new kid in class. Right away, you can sense the two are kindred, weird, little souls. Douglas claims to have a secret and Candice informs him that she cannot keep secrets. Douglas insists on telling her anyway. Douglas, dear reader, claims he is from a different dimension.
According to Douglas, he discovered a tesseract and he believes that if he jumps from just the right height, he will be able to travel to other dimensions, and specifically, be able to return to his home dimension. Douglas is a big believer in the multiverse and his passion for string theory and alternative timelines is incredibly charming. I thought for a moment that I might tire of Candice’s quirky choice to always refer to her new friend as Douglas Benson from Another Dimension, but I never did.
That’s the glorious trick of H is for Happiness, I never tired of its wonderful quirks. Quirks such as Candice insisting on calling her Uncle Brian as Rich Uncle Brian, or referring to anyone she meets by their full name. Star Daisy Axon gives these unique traits a life of their own. Each quirk emerges from a place so sweet, naive and authentic that I could not stop adoring her, no matter how unwieldy some of her quirks became.
In lesser hands than those of director John Sheedy and screenwriter Lisa Hoppe, H is for Happiness would end up like one of those mediocre Diary of a Wimpy Kid movies or, more stomach quake inducing, one of those kiddie religious movies where children are all the vessels of a supernatural God who speaks through their innocence and delivers crowd pleasing miracles and aphorisms.
Thankfully, John Sheedy, Lisa Hoppe and the rest of the glorious team behind H is for Happiness are aiming for something more than merely uplifting. H is for Happiness may be a family friendly movie but that doesn't prevent the team behind it for aiming for something approaching art. The story has roots in the glorious magical realism of the best children's fiction from Dr Seuss to Where the Wild Things Are.
The direction and scripting on the other had have influences that range from Taika Waititi's Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and a little Jojo Rabbit, to a touch of Charlie Kaufman and Tim Burton, in his more down to Earth moments such as in Big Fish, The playfulness of H is for Happiness is matched with a skillfulness that is rarely applied to a film in the family genre.
I want to write about each of these characters in depth and talk about why I fell so deeply in love with all of them but this review cannot go on forever. Plus, you need to experience H is for Happiness for yourself. The wonderful characters are matched with a witty and sneaky script boiling over with charm. Then there is the fantastic world building going on in which we see the world through Candice’s eyes and the production design, color choices and camerawork place us deeply and warmly in Candice’s wonderful vision of the world.
It’s a world that is beautiful and alive but not immune to the outside world. Candice has a strong sense of the world around her, the genuine heartache in her home she wishes to quell is apparent to her even as she is too naive to understand that she can’t fix everything. That she tries and never loses hope or pluck is making me well up with joyful tears just thinking about it. She’s just a delightful character as is everyone in the movie.
I’m overselling H is for Happiness, it cannot possibly live up to my raving but I can’t help but gush. I adore this movie. A lightning bolt of joy has struck my soul, this movie just delighted me and I can’t help myself. H is for Happiness will be available via most streaming rental services on Friday, September 18h.