H is for Happiness review – emotional affairs of adults seen through a bright, childlike lens | Film
The director John Sheedy’s coming of age film H is For Happiness – adapted from Barry Jonsberg’s novel My Life As an Alphabet – is photographed in joyfully bright ways, as if inspired by the aesthetic of boiled lollies or rainbow-coloured cupcakes. The juicy, irresistible look of the film evokes the child in the adult, while its narrative – about an idiosyncratic 12-year-old girl intent on solving the world’s problems, including and especially those in her own family – evokes the adult in the child. There is plenty for youngsters to mull over without feeling like they’ve been talked down to or lectured.
The freckled, cherub-faced Candice (an unforgettably vibrant Daisy Axon), with her Pippi Longstocking-like bright white teeth and pigtailed red hair, is the sort of character who is compulsively watchable on screen but would probably come across as an insufferable do-gooder in real life. This is suggested early in the piece, when Candice’s school teacher Miss Bamford (Miriam Margolyes) asks if any of the students have questions about their assignment. And, of course, Candice does, drawing from the class a big collective sigh; they have been in this situation before.
A new boy at her school becomes Candice’s bestie and potential love interest. He is Douglas Benson (Wesley Patten), whose full name, according to Candice, is “Douglas Benson from Another Dimension”. She has bestowed upon him this title because Douglas does indeed claim to have travelled between planes of reality, while simultaneously conceding that his experiences in “manipulating dimensions and invoking gravity” is a gloried way of saying he fell out of a tree.
While delivering his backstory about crossing dimensions, Douglas complains about how “some idiot in a white coat” made an “unscientific” and “frankly, insufferable” diagnosis that he is mentally unwell. No child speaks like that, of course. Nor does anybody – child or adult – express themselves with the kind of magniloquence that comes out of Candice’s mouth. “Your vocabulary is remarkable for a 12-year-old,” her teacher says, highlighting an observation no doubt made by the audience. The silver-tongued youngster responds by explaining that her favourite book is the dictionary and she reads it every night.
The contrivance of the film’s dialogue might have been in issue in, say, a social realist picture with a gritty street-side vibe. H is for Happiness is a very different experience, its bright syrupy surfaces the most obvious manifestation of a movie that, while more or less based in our world, has its head very much in the clouds, with regular inferences of the fantastical. What do we make, for instance, of the small and beautiful white horse that follows Candice and Douglas into the forest, and seems to have walked right out of a picture book? And do we think that Douglas Benson might actually be from another dimension?
The cinematography of Bonnie Elliott (who recently shot The Hunting, Palm Beach and Undertow), with its rainbow colours and high saturation, also infers magical qualities. Her gloss-lacquered surfaces are aided in no small measure by Nicki Gardiner’s production design, Terri Lamera’s costume design and Marita Mussett’s art direction. H is for Happiness looks like the sort of film people had a lot of fun making.
Sheedy deploys truckloads of one-point perspective shots, directing viewers to the centre of symmetrical compositions. The contemporary film-maker most closely associated with this type of image is the auteur Wes Anderson, who, like Sheedy, does not see any conflict between dramatic and emotional truth and sweet-toothed visual artifice. H is for Happiness even dabbles in overhead food photography – another distinct Andersonism. This, and the enchanting 2016 coming of age dramedy Girl Asleep, are probably the most Wes Anderson-like films in Australian history.
The word “quirky” comes to mind – though this a very fussy, fastidious kind of quirk, heavy on visual artistry and with a high-end, ’grammable sort of incandescence. The lollipop look of H is for Happiness suggests viewers are observing this world through the optimistic eyes of a child, which makes for a particularly interesting experience when Lisa Hoppe’s screenplay confronts the emotional affairs of adults. Candice’s father Jim (Richard Roxburgh) and uncle Brian (Joel Jackson), for instance, do not get along and have deep wounds to heal. And her mother Claire (Emma Booth) is prone to episodes of melancholia, sometimes seen staring glumly into the distance. She must see her world in despairing monochrome.
The narrative arc builds towards a school theatre production, which is a cliche drag-and-drop conclusion. But it’s done in a way that’s hard if not impossible to hate, utilising the old trick of making poo jokes to diffuse sentimentality. There is much to appreciate in this film; much to like. You don’t just watch it in big bright colours; you remember it in big bright colours too.