The Happiest Day In the Life of Olli Mäki is a boxing biopic that has no interest in the sport of boxing. Winner of the Un Certain Regard prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Juho Kuosmanen’s dryly funny, blissfully sweet, and deceptively absorbing work revels in Olli Mäki’s psychological surroundings as he contends with the strangeness of national promotion, the accruing pressures of competing, and a burgeoning romance that’s feeling more permanent than he expected.
Mäki (played by Jarkko Lahti) was a Finnish boxer who had a shot at the 1962 title when he faced American champion Davey Moore (John Bosco Jr.). Kuosmanen’s film drops in on Mäki shortly before the title fight when Mäki comes home to a small town for a family wedding and meets his future girlfriend, Raija (a deeply charismatic Oona Airola), the singer at said wedding. From these opening minutes, Kuosmanen and cinematographer J.P. Passi assertively establish their visual POV, bringing a bracing immediacy to the camerawork with over-the-shoulder intimacy and external angles that emphasize Mäki’s alienation. Stark black-and-white cinematography mixes with the occasional archival footage, and it takes pains to distinguish between the moments when Mäki is performing for the camera and when his true nature is being revealed, favoring a framing with more unencumbered space in these scenes.
Structurally, Kusomanen and co-writer Mikko Myllylahti bring a comparable mediation between internal / external experience, avoiding the usual blunders of the biopic format and instead zooming in on Mäki’s psyche as he grapples with this single event in his life. Mäki’s world is one that’s dominated by boxing, but the main conflicts in his life are less about the ensuing match than peripheral issues like dropping the multiple pounds in order to qualify for the match. The weight scenario takes up a good chunk of the running time, but, while some films may have milked this situation as a point of suspense, this one instead views it as an opportunity to dig into Mäki’s doubts about his own abilities and his purpose.
Through all these scenes, Mäki’s concentration constantly returns to Raija to the dismay of his militant trainer, Elis (Eero Milonoff), a former champion in his own right who’s living vicariously through Mäki’s achievements. Elis doesn’t just serve as a stock mentor; the film offers just as much interiority, whether he’s reminiscing about how an early fight was one of the best days of his life, or his ongoing financial issues, which bleed into his relationship with his wife and children. These are character moments, but they also significantly flesh out the stakes of this fight as dichotomies show that there are people like Elis, and then the big spenders who are shelling out the cash for the fight.
That’s shown repeatedly in scenes where Mäki has to pose in lavish coats for local department stores with strangers on his arms and hobnob with wealthy financiers at dinners when all he really wants is to spend time with Raija. But these scenes also double as a commentary on the uneasy division of wealth in Finland at the time, as people like Elis are forced to beg for money while these elitists bet on the match as if it means nothing. That tension also manifests in the tone, as Mäki is seen in moments where he’s roughhousing in a sauna or posturing in front of documentary crews who have anointed Mäki’s story as the person to give international recognition to the country.
Lahti is excellent, projecting an easy humility that comes into play in his relationships with fame, and especially with Raija as he realizes that he’s deeply invested in this relationship. In the ring, Lahti proves lissome, but, out of the ring, that body language becomes nervy and more agitated, bringing an unexpected element of comedy as he stands next to other men who tower over him in looks and how they carry themselves.
But the film isn’t only about being tangled up in this previously small-time boxer’s head. There are also scenes where we see Raija’s perspective as she has to awkwardly sit on the sidelines twiddling her thumbs, and talking to another wife of a boxer who has resigned to a life where she’s always going to be secondary to her husband’s passion. These scenes aren’t presented as narrative turning points, though, and more just realities of the lives that these characters have chosen.
The Happiest Day In the Life of Olli Mäki doesn’t succumb to the obvious issues of the biopic, but does suffer in the opposite way: it sometimes lacks that singular purpose that pushes forward so many other sports films. It finds a poetically understated ending, but the drama, especially near the end, borders on being too repetitive. Still, it’s a worthwhile showcase for excellent performances, assured direction, and a twist on the sports story that prioritizes character before history.
The Happiest Day In the Life of Olli Mäki screened at the Chicago International Film Festival and opens on April 21.