What an odd duck of a kids’ comedy “H is for Happiness” is.
This Aussie confection tests one’s patience and foils attempts at interpretation. It takes forever to get going, and tends to balance every potentially giddy moment with a glum and depressing one.
Annoying, omnipresent voice-over narration grates on the nerves, a grieving, broken family resists every “cute” break from their grief and bitterness, and all the sight gags and attempts at jokes are sprinkled in to break the mood.
A teacher with a wacky lazy eye, and her martinet of a “relief teacher” (substitute) are juvenile plot devices, but hilarious.
“Do NOT mistake me for a human being!”
And then there’s the boy who hand-crafts what he figures (with some prompting) every twelve year-old girl wants for her 13th birthday — beach-ball inflatable artificial breasts.
It’s “Bridge to Terabithia” dark with a Down Under accent, and with so many whimsical touches that we figure that the filmmakers were hoping for a comedy, even if they settled for “just occasionally charming.”
Daisy Axon is our heroine, an over-eager teacher’s pet named Candice Phee. We meet her as her teacher-with-the-lazy-eye (Miriam Margolyes) is charging her class with taking an assigned letter of the alphabet and turning it into an autobiographical essay to be performed at “Open Day” (Parents’ Day) assembly.
“A is for ‘assignment,'” freckled, pony-tailed Candice narrates, redundantly. But maybe she can do something with it that will fix her family.
“Everyone is miserable,” she admits. And when we meet her Mom (Emma Booth), still drowning in grief over Candice’s three-years-dead baby sister, we get it. Dad (Richard Roxburgh) has checked-out, too. He’s lost in grinding work, sad but also bitter that “Rich Uncle Brian” (Joel Jackson), his brother, cheated him when the tech company they co-owned sold.
“C is for ‘court case.'”
Bubbly chatterbox Candice isn’t popular at school. The queen mean girl (Alessandra Tognini) has nicknamed her “SN,” “special needs.”
Even school newcomer and new friend Douglas (Wesley Patten) wonders about her, telling his Mom (Deborah Mailman) something that makes her ask, “You are autistic, aren’t you?”
No. But when always address your uncle as “Rich Uncle Brian,” and Douglas as “Douglas Benson from Another Dimension,” you can see how people might be confused.
That last one, though, is all on Douglas. He’s sure that a fall from a tree sent him into another dimension, with a stand-in mother, the works. He’s all about solving this “multiverse” dilemma.
How will Candice mend her broken family, heal the rift between her dad and his brother, make Douglas want to stay in this dimension and deliver the perfect “Open Day” presentation as her crowning achievement?
How will Douglas’s inflatable boobs “gift” figure into all that?
Veteran children’s TV writer Lisa Hoppe scripted this, and first-time feature director (and Aussie TV vet) John Sheedy never quite gets a handle on the myriad moods and shifting tones this tale entails.
Hurling a relentlessly upbeat and enterprising tween at depression and grief, bitterness and loneliness is a tough sell.
The whimsy feels forced and random. There’s a pony in the forest where Candice and Douglas Benson from Another Dimension wander and debate multiverses, and a cross-dressing costume-and-party shop proprietor turns up.
That pretty much goes for the whole movie. “H is for Happiness” prioritizes “”feels” over coherence, weird-for-weird’s-sake touches over character development, while expecting endless voice-over narration to caulk over the cracks.
MPAA Rating: unrated, childhood trauma, an accident, scatological humor
Cast: Daisy Axon, Miriam Margolyes, Emma Booth, Wesley Patten, Joel Jackson, Deborah Mailman Richard Roxburgh and Alessandra Tognini.
Credits: Directed by John Sheedy, script by Lisa Hoppe. A Samuel Goldwyn release.
Running time: 1:38