Movie Review: “Happy Face”

“Happy Face” is a challenging, uplifting and life-affirming Canadian dramedy that arrived to little fanfare a couple of years back, but which deserves to finally find its audience as it hits the major streaming services.

It’s about disfigured people in 1990s Montreal finally getting their power back through a hospital encounter group “workshop” that only gets results when it goes off the rails. And director Alexandre Franchi’s story journeys from touching to heartbreaking, shocking to hilarious.

They’re a varied group — a cop scarred in a fire, an aspiring model unwilling to give up the dream despite a facially-deforming birth defect, a cancer survivor who lost his real nose, others with skin conditions, injuries and scars. What they have in common is how society treats them, and how that’s made them withdrawn, depressed and afraid of the world.

They have lost loved ones, or the chance to meet someone, the mere ability to go out in public without being ridiculed or discriminated against.

The counselor leading them through “therapy” is Vanessa (Debbie Lynch-White), once a child model and actress, now morbidly obese and “a second-class citizen, like you” trying to navigate a world eager to “judge me.”

She will instruct her charges in the dangers of “all or nothing thinking” and “catastrophizing,” rehearse them in “Body Language for a Better Connection” and bring them out of the “ugly” shells their bodies have become to them.

The youngest member wears a hoodie, his face contorted and obscured by medical bandages. Sullen Augustine (Robin L’Houmeau) wants to become a better person, but Vanessa and we have our doubts.

“I don’t like imposters,” she hisses at him when she’s had enough.

When we him out of the bandages, handsome, 19 and splitting his time between Dungeons & Dragons and bar pickups, we share Vanessa’s anger. Then we meet his mom (Noémie Kocher), their apartment decorated with modeling shots from her youth. She laments her looks after her breast cancer surgery. She spits in fury about the husband, the boy’s father, leaving her. And the cancer isn’t gone.

“Stan,” who is using his mother’s name “Augustine” in the group, has things to work out. And once he’s “outed” in the group, the failing therapy falls by the wayside, a little Stan-inspired “face your demons” tough love takes over and “Happy Face” finds its heart, its humor and its pathos as Stan finds his true purpose.

The script makes the kid near-clairvoyant (absurdly so) in his ability to “read” the others, their fears and injuries — some self-inflicted. He baits and triggers one and all. But as he wavers over his ability to come to grips with his mother’s condition and sees and hears her at her losing-control worst, his impulsive actions in the group — trashing a restaurant whose staff discriminates, shaming swimmers who ridicule others’ looks — inspire his new friends.

Co-writer/director Franchi (“The Wild Hunt”) stomps through this scenario like a bull in a Montreal china shop, stopping to take us into 1990s D&D culture, making that pre-Internet “avatar” story-telling game a cute analogy for what the disfigured live with every day.

Weaving Wagner’s heroic “Siefried’s Funeral March” from “Gotterdammerung,” made memorable in “Excalibur,” just gives the stunts, breakthroughs and struggle we witness not just a human dimension, but a heroic one.

Unblinkingly grappling with the horrors of life crumbling towards an early, canceros end, using actors with real disfigurements and letting them extemporize on their experiences of the world (via the script) give “Happy Face” much more than entertainment value. It’s the rarest of films that truly allows us to see that world through another’s eyes.

MPA Rating: unrated, violence, nudity, sex, profanity

Cast: Debbie Lynch-White, Robin L’Houmeau, Noémie Kocher, David Roche, Alison Midstokke

Credits: Directed by Alexandre Franchi, script by Joelle Bourjolly, Alexandre Franchi. On Netflix and Amazon.

Running time: 1:38

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