Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Happy House (2013)

Coming out of the gross and dark (yet not completely devoid of lighthearted touches) Contracted and We Are What We Are, I needed something like a quirky indie horror-comedy, and à propos of this desire came this past Tuesday's Netflix DVD release of The Happy House, writer-director D. W. Young's first feature film. I had nearly zero expectations for this film, but I definitely wasn't prepared for its off-beat vibe on the first viewing (Tuesday night) and fell asleep within the first 30 minutes; so I had to re-watch it the next evening. I'd like to say I fell asleep because of a tiring day, but that's not exactly the whole truth. I was fairly well-rested and looking forward to the film. What I wasn't prepared for, however, was the sluggish feel of each mini-scene and the (initially) awkward acting from Khan Baykal. Yet, the re-watch yielded a very enjoyable second half of the film (the 80-minute feature seems to find its footing around the 40-minute mark).

Yes, it has its problems. The blurb on the Netflix envelope states that the couple, Joe and Wendy, are having issues and going away in an attempt to mend their failing relationship. But the interaction between Joe and Wendy throughout the entire movie simply portrays every normal, non-failing relationship I've ever known. They are more playful and flirtatious than anything, with meager attempts at showing frustration with one another. For example, Joe becomes exasperated when Wendy fails to get ready and leave on time, but this doesn't constitute "serious problems" (this could be the pinnacle of relationship normalcy). On top of that, they playfully decide to have sex on the first night away. Now, I gave the benefit of a doubt that Netflix got the description screwed up, but IMDB also states, "Their relationship on the rocks, a young Brooklyn couple heads to a remote B & B to work things out." So, this bode poorly for the direction right from the start. For an example of how to depict a relationship on the rocks, I suggest studying the beginning of Vacancy or The Strangers. Then again, it will be obvious that this film is going for something quite different than the aforementioned.

The failed effort to construct a believable ailing relationship is, in my opinion, easily forgivable beginning around the second half, when you realize the whole cast is having fun with a tongue-in-cheek script. And, luckily, Aya Cash shines where Khan Baykal falls short (just as in a functional relationship!). Whereas Khan's attempts at normalcy and humour fell flat for a while, Aya's charm and girl-next-door appeal carried the weight of the dyad throughout. Eventually, Khan finds his footing, though, and I began to settle into the rhythm of their dry humour and interactions by the time Wendy "stormed off" only to have the car break down. Honestly, I think a lot of people may be put off by the form of the film. It goes after that realistic feel of Entrance, which most audiences certainly aren't used to, but it is ripe with charming gems. So, if you find that the acting almost unbearable, my advice, again, is to stick with it.

The element of the film that charmed me the most was the parody of pretentious humanities snobs. It is obvious that D. W. Young and I have the same background and tastes in at least literature and other liberal arts studies. As soon as I read the part about the "rare butterfly" on the envelope and then saw the opening shot of the guy (the lepidopterist) with the butterfly net, I immediately thought of one of the most famous lepidopterists, Vladimir Nabokov, whose remarkable prose I have studied in college and savoured on my own. Then, in a small moment with a big payoff for me, Nabokov is explicitly referenced and Joe poses the perennial question of how exactly one should pronounce the last name! Then, shortly after, we get a liberal studies teacher who teaches--get this--nouveau recontextualism! I literally laughed out loud (as opposed to just laughed out loud) at this. It sounded exactly like some literary theory I would've studied, or something one could come up with after reading this delightful paper on how to speak and write postmodern. To top it off, later, while trapped in the house by a lunatic, the teacher says that when she gets out of there she is going to get "drunker than Charles Bukowski at an open bar." I don't care what your movie is about or how it's shot; if you give me clever literary references, I'm going to like it.

Aside from Joe and Wendy, the two characters who really stole the show were Marceline Hugot as Hildie and Oliver Henzler as the Swede Hverven. In contrast to the "millennial types" of Joe and Wendy, Hugot nails her role as the old fashioned bed and breakfast owner who wants everyone to be cheerful and have a great time, but only under the constraints of her ultra-conservative rules. This is the first of many red herrings that drive the first half of the film in one direction, only to be changed later. In fact, everyone except Wendy and Joe is portrayed as a possible red herring: Hildie, her son, the Swede, and the creepy tow-truck driver, each in their own creative way. As for the Swede, I found a lot to love, especially since I have worked for a Swedish company and traveled to the country numerous times. The carefully sketched cast of characters sets up for hilarious moments as when Hildie brandishes a rifle and the Swede says in response, "Oh, God, I love America!" and when the son utters a perfectly placed chuckle during the dinner-table story of how Wendy and Joe met.

Toward the end, I realized that there was one thing the film wasn't bringing to a close: the secret ingredient in the blueberries. I won't talk too much about them, but they are used to setup the first red herring, as I said, and the way the secret ingredient is presented is very ominous, so to just let the loose end stay a loose end was irking me. Thankfully, I decided to check out the bonus features and see if there was any kind of interview or explanation otherwise. Indeed, there was an item labeled something to the effect of "Hildie's blueberry muffin recipe" that will give you what you're looking for. And in addition, I highly recommend watching D. W. Young's short film "Not Interested," also included in the bonus features. In a way, I wish I had watched this first, as it establishes the type of tone and acting you're going to get from the movie in general and from Khan Baykal in particular. I am not going to use this post to talk about the short film, but I highly recommend it. It shows a creative and skilled writer-director who is at the outset of a promising career.

The Happy House probably will not be what you expect, but I hope that, like me, your expectations will be leveled and the film will lay its own foundation. I fear a lot of people will roll their eyes and write the film off for its rather rocky start; and I fear others will spend the entire film trying to "pin it down" and fit it into a mould with which they do feel comfortable. D. W. Young strikes me as being on the same path as Ti West, whose movies have a flavour of their own and tend to sharply divide audiences into the lovers and the haters. Judging by the short film and the feature under discussion, Young has developed a recipe of his own that helps him stand out from the exorbitant amounts of cookie-cutter films and aspiring filmmakers out there. The Happy House is like a peculiar blend that those whose palates are willing to be challenged and flexed will enjoy.

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