In their feature debut, collaborating filmmakers John Serpe and Tom Gould put a lot of heart and soul into a Los Angeles story affected by happenstances of LA superficialities. Their film is a love story to the city, but also aims to poke holes in its gilded filmy outer layer. Taking on the Hollywood industry and its black hole of closeted actors, the business’s residential hub of Los Feliz, and the richly diverse culture surrounding it, The Happys jumps fearlessly into its subject matter, and comes out with a heartwarming tale of friendship, acceptance, and making a home out of even what seems like the most dire of circumstances. While the risks are not always met with reward, – in some of the film’s more far-fetched plot details – The Happys should be appreciated for going there in the first place.
The story follows the young Wisconsinite Tracy (Amanda Bauer) who has recently moved to Los Angeles with her serious boyfriend Mark (Jack DePew) after he books a movie role (a Lifetime type sap-fest with a strong heterosexual love story). Not long after arriving, Tracy catches Mark in bed with a man. Furious, she leaves Mark, but, without many options, returns and forces him to vow his loyalty to her and promise to stay faithful. With a personal strain on their coupling, added onto Mark’s changing industry lifestyle, Tracy attempts to forge her own way within her strange new surroundings all while desperately trying to hold onto her relationship. She finds unlikely confidants in the neighborhood, including Luann, a former actress turned landlord (Janeane Garofalo) still coasting on the fame of a past television role, Sebastian (Rhys Ward), a shut-in scared of human interaction, but addicted to sun-tanning and red wine, and Ricky, a local Mexican food truck owner struggling to stay in business against the growing popularity of fusion cuisine (Arturo del Puerto).
Hailing from Madison, Wisconsin, Tracy is at first laughably simple and naive. The film introduces her as an overblown housewife whose only desire in life is to love and please her boyfriend. With no friends or job to speak of, she spends her days cooking for Mark, visiting him on set, and desperately trying to please him sexually. The plot does well to change this unfortunate side of her character, giving her agency and her own purpose as she moves forward while learning to live for herself; however, her story has a rough start, and she begins so one-dimensionally that if I were from Wisconsin, I would consider her characterization borderline offensive.
The filmmakers find redemption in their depth of characters right about after the twenty minute mark. Bauer, the film’s breakout actress, proves to be a dependable and captivating lead, building a strength and humanity for Tracy as the film progresses. She and DePew have a great connection as well amidst the brewing tension of his wandering eye and opposing sexual attraction. Despite their onscreen chemistry, DePew sometimes falls flat without Bauer. Both Mark and Tracy go through monumental character changes throughout the film, where DePew is tasked with the hefty responsibility of carefully and truthfully telling a coming out tale in Hollywood, where it could easily teeter between cliché or insightful. Some of the necessary emotion is lost from DePew, but thankfully the script and Bauer’s performance bolster his story.
The bulk of the film’s sentimental and thematic gusto comes out of the characters that help Tracy along her path. The Happys moniker is an awkwardly direct English translation of the neighborhood Los Feliz, and that interpretation is a fitting reflection of the world of the film. There is an obvious implication of Los Feliz being a crossroads between the gentrifying Los Angeles nouveau riche, the infiltrating hipster sprawl, and the diverse ethnic population hanging onto a rightful foothold and maintaining the area’s small semblance of culture.
The translated title also speaks to the film’s individuals, however, all coming from different backgrounds and experiences, but also all on a path to make Los Angeles their own and enact personal transformations. Sebastian’s agoraphobia deals with a separate form of “closeting” and draws a nice parallel between him and Mark, showing the ease with which someone could mentally and emotionally close themselves off from society or healthy relationships. Ricky also finds himself taking a back seat to changing societal norms with the emergence of hip fusion food trucks, although in order to buy his story, one would have to suspend reality and accept that traditional Mexican cuisine’s popularity could ever wane in Southern California (I don’t see that happening in my lifetime). The trucks, however, still represent that general societal shift that easily plagues the individual – a common occurrence in Los Angeles where adaptation is key.
With all of this transformation happening within the story, Gould and Serpe expose the elephant in the room: Hollywood’s continuous failure to change its heteronormative attitudes. The filmmakers push through the boundaries of sexuality not only through plot, but also through interestingly awkward, frantic, and at times grotesque sex scenes via a variety of gendered couplings. Mark’s struggle with his sexuality is also hindered by industry expectations and his fear that he’ll be pigeonholed out of leading man roles, a reality further confirmed by his agent (Melissa McBride, The Walking Dead). Continuing to be a taboo subject, actors being closeted is both the best and worst kept secret in the industry, and Mark’s fear of stigma is one small example of that. Thankfully, this film works to keep the dialogue open and goes a long way toward acknowledging the pervasive issue.
Verdict: 3 out of 5
The Happys, while visually and stylistically simple, relies and thrives on a rich story and characters. Gould and Serpe tell a happy story of identity, acceptance, and transformation within the cultural and social crossroads of Los Angeles. Tracy and company overcome their struggle with change, and find a working simpatico with the city. While not always believable, the story has the best of intentions, which ultimately makes all the difference.