PARK CITY, Utah (Hollywood Reporter) - If it weren’t so good-natured overall, Anne Sewitsky’s feature debut “Happy, Happy” might seem entirely implausible, even for a comedy.
This Norwegian picture (originally titled “Insanely Happy”) won the narrative World Cinema Jury award at the Sundance Film Festival and has enough familiar situations and laughs to snare arthouse audiences, but a disturbing subplot may nix U.S. theatrical play in favor of DVD.
Pretty, thirtyish Kaja (Agnes Kittelsen) is a school teacher living in the Norwegian countryside with her taciturn husband Erik (Joachim Rafaelsen) and their son Theodor (Oskar Hernaes Brandso). Inexplicably well-off enough to own two homes next door to each other, they’ve decided to rent the second one out to another couple from the city. The new neighbor’s arrival fills Kaja with anticipation, since she seems to have few social outlets beyond her immediate family. Sigve (Henrik Rafaelsen) and his attorney wife Elisabeth (Maibritt Saerens), along with their black adopted son Noa (Ram Shihab Ebedy), have relocated to help smooth over Elisabeth’s recently concluded affair.
An initial welcome dinner becomes a bit uncomfortable as Kaja gushes over Elisabeth and her family, revealing a squirm-worthy desperation for friendship that practically causes her new neighbor to recoil. Erik remains withdrawn, revealing a near-complete lack of social skills. A few days later, Sigve and Elisabeth return the favor, but their dinner becomes even more awkward with the introduction of a couples-romance board game that reveals Kaja and Erik haven’t had sex in more than a year, much to her dismay.
Slightly drunk Kaja leaves the table in tears and when Sigve tries to comfort her afterwards while their spouses are outside smoking, he reveals the embarrassing reason for their move to the countryside. Their passionate embrace leads to a heated affair — Kaja says it’s the best sex she’s ever had and Sigve is grateful to be appreciated for a change, particularly after his wife’s affair. Meanwhile, Theodor has started forcing Noa into a disturbing series of master and slave role-playing games, including mock beatings and confinement.
An interesting twist comes after Erik and Sigve go on an energetic run and Erik tries to plant a kiss on Sigve’s lips. When Kaja finds out, it reinforces her creeping dread that her husband may in fact be gay. But it’s Elisabeth’s discovery of the affair that lights a slow-burning fuse on the couples’ powder keg of mixed emotions.
Kittelsen’s performance is the linchpin of the film — her open, emotive face reveals as much about her thoughts as her poor impulse control. Whether cavorting with her new lover or probing her husband to share his emotions, her expressive performance easily draws the audience in. Joachim Rafaelsen and Saerens are suitably unpleasant as the designated villains, but Henrik Rafaelsen has much more of a functional role as Sigve and doesn’t commit much momentum to the narrative.
Sewitsky directs the performances and camera with confidence and flair, although the succession of Christmastime interiors is rather repetitive, in contrast to the exterior scenes, which breathe fresh dynamism into the pacing. Aside from the slavery angle, it’s a pleasant-enough film that’s likely to entice Euro-centric audiences more than others.