The feature film debut of Norwegian director Anne Sewitsky promises to be a “comedy about infidelity, moose meat, blowjobs and cottage cheese,” but proves to be so much more.
Happy Happy, which won the narrative World Cinema Jury award at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, is a character-driven comedy that centers on Kaja (played with a sprightly brightness by Agnes Kittelsen), a devoted wife and mother who lives in rural Norway and manages to find the silver-lining to every rain cloud. Though starved for affection and regularly mocked by her son (Oskar Hernæs Brandsø) and husband (Joachim Rafaelsen), Kaja is happy enough – that is until a new (and decidedly more modern) family moves in next door. Fascinated by the sophisticated couple (Henrik Rafaelsen and Maibritt Saerens) and their adopted African child (Ram Shihab Ebedy), Kaja strives to make fast friends, and soon find the cracks beneath the surface of their seemingly perfect marriage. This revelation makes Kaja confront the issues in her own marriage, resulting in a wild series of trysts and confrontations.
While this may seem like a plot-line prone to melodrama, Happy Happy rebukes melancholy in favor of a warm and socially awkward sense of humor that is reminiscent of early Coen Brothers’ films. (Think Fargo minus the murders.) And like the Coens’ comedies, Happy Happy is stocked with an incredibly game and talented group of comedic performers. Whether delivering biting dialogue or frolicking naked through the snow, this tight-knit ensemble sings, easily eliciting laughs in this complex tale of infidelity and self-discovery. Also like the Coens, Sewitsky makes use of American bluegrass to weave her winding tale of love together. Throughout, the film cuts to a quartet of suit-wearing white men performing bubbly acapella renditions of love songs with a decidedly bluegrass flare. Rather than jarring, it’s a soothing (yet surreal) bridge to the story’s next chapter, adding another wonderfully wacky layer to this eccentric comedy.
Finally, after all the bed-hopping and wife-swapping has ended, comes a truly satisfying finish for all involved. This is a real achievement, as many comedies rush into a happy ending so fast the audience is left without the kind of self-satisfaction the characters have so abruptly been granted. Here, the ending is happy enough, which fits the story and its affable but flawed characters. Overall, Happy Happy is a joyous journey full of incisive wit and heart that could easily be enjoyed beyond the art house.
Happy Happy is currently screening at The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s NDNF.