These should be joyful times for Emma (Sophie Desmarais). She’s thought of as the top of her class and is about to finish a year-long residency conducting for Orchestre Métropolitain in her hometown of Montreal. There’s talk she might even be up for a permanent position––which would work perfectly now that she’s started seeing one of the group’s cellists (Nour Belkhiria’s Naëlle). Emma should be drinking champagne with friends and celebrating with her family because future dreams are about to become her actual present. Yet her agent can’t help but always applaud their work rather than hers. While a red flag normally, the fact that Patrick (Sylvain Marcel) is also her father means the sirens are deafening.

I say that with hindsight, though. Did I think it at the start? No. Because writer-director Chloé Robichaud does a wonderful job writing their dynamic as complex-yet-successful at the beginning. Patrick and Emma agreed that she would only sign with his agency if she was willing to be treated like every other client. Friction obviously rears its head. He’s not going to sugarcoat things or stop himself from providing criticism because he’s being paid to be honest with her and a bastard to anyone trying to sign her to as favorable a contract for them as possible. Complexity in good times, however, can quickly turn hostile in bad. And hiding behind notions of “professionalism” rings false when “honesty” transforms into abuse.

The title Days of Happiness is thus more dark joke than literal representation of what’s happening onscreen once the “golden student” meets adversity. It comes from all angles. An idol (Vincent Leclerc’s Philippe) gives praise before saying she’s still young and inexperienced and stuck in her own head as far as holding perfection above emotion. Naëlle won’t let her properly meet her son (Rayan Benmoussa’s Jad) because of how doing so might complicate her tenuous separation with the boy’s father. And Patrick is pushing for her to choose a composer’s work that even she admits might be outside her current talents. Emma feels stuck as a result. She’s being provoked, challenged, and undermined with little room to fight back. She relents. She does what they say. She loses herself.

Through it all, though, we glean new details ignited by the death of her grandmother. Truths about her father’s upbringing come to light that ultimately recolor her memory of her own. What we initially might construe as a mirror of conditional love between Emma and Naëlle and Emma and Patrick soon reveals itself to be a canyon-wide contrast. Both hold frustration and the potential for debilitating pain, but only one refuses to give her choice. Only one lays everything on the line despite complications to let her decide regardless of whether she’s ready. The other devolves into manipulation and rage. What had been presented as savvy toughness finds itself exposed as unfeeling control. And watching it is nothing compared to experiencing Emma’s own inevitable recognition.

What initially play like a solid drama lifted by its soulful lead performance actually proves a slow-burning crescendo of catharsis wherein Emma must find the strength to cut the strings that have been leading her forward. Patrick has a line to the effect of “it’s easy to act for another’s benefit,” as though he’s some martyr who has worked himself to the bone for those around him without ever reaping any rewards. It’s one of the moments where you really see beneath the façade he has cultivated even if Emma can’t quite agree. Because she’s the one those words really describe. She’s the one living for others because doing so makes it easier to avoid the tumult of her own trauma and truth. It leads to an unforgettable climactic concert where her fears pour out.

It’s one of those a-ha moments where everything you’d seen up until that point is refocused under a new heartbreaking light. And while I’m sure for some the music itself will do a lot of heavy lifting (not to mention the differences in Desmarais’ performance through the film’s three distinct concerts), but to me it has everything to do with how Robichaud constructs the scene. She splices in flashbacks of Emma’s childhood––memories and actors we haven’t yet seen so the impact of their presence hits even harder. She leans into reaction shots that have us believing Emma and her parents are reliving those same events through the music too. It’s simultaneously a deep breath of relief and damning judgment that ensures there’s no going back.

Even so, Days of Happiness never proves reductive in its themes or characterizations. Robichaud’s goal isn’t to have Emma get revenge or for Patrick to somehow undergo an overnight metamorphosis via the power of music. She knows that doing so would only trivialize the breakthrough her lead has undergone. Because it’s not really about Patrick at all. Whether he will ever acknowledge his impact on his daughter’s life was just as abusive as his father on his doesn’t matter as long as she understands. This is a story about a woman taking back her life. Maybe her father plays a role in that by helping her achieve her dream, but that gift doesn’t erase the terror of his reign. Just as the latter doesn’t erase the fact she will always still love him.

Days of Happiness premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.

Grade: B+

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