Based on the novel My Life as an Alphabet by Barry Jonsberg, John Sheedy’s Australian family film H is for Happiness is a bit of a mixed bag. It is undeniably positive and fun, while being somewhat meandering and tonally inconsistent.
12-year-old Candice Phee (Daisy Axon) has an assignment. As part of her middle school studies, she must presenting her auto-biography. She must utilize each letter of the alphabet to represent the various facets of her life. We learn of the untimely death of her baby sister Skye. After that death caused the crippling depression that her mother Claire (Emma Booth) experienced. Candice also explains the fallout between her father Jim (Richard Roxburgh) and her Rich Uncle Brian (Joel Jackson). That happened after business dealings gone wrong. Finally we see the burgeoning romance between Candice and Douglas Benson from Another Dimension (Wesley Patten).
I will say upfront that Axon is wonderful in this film. She imbues Candice’s wide-eyed optimism and positivity with authentic naturalism. The trope in movies of the precocious child can often go either way, depending on the performer. Axon absolutely sells Candice’s intellect, as well as a vernacular that is far stronger than mine. She also nails her more dramatic beats.
Booth and Roxburgh also turn in lovely performances as Candice’s parents. Further, I quite liked Patten as Douglas Benson, a character that reminded me considerably of Yorki (Archie Yates) in Taika Waititi’s 2019 film Jojo Rabbit.
H is for Happiness is beautifully shot by DPs Bonnie Elliot and Rick Rifici. There are a number of symmetrical wide frames that are absolutely gorgeous. Further, the colour grading is bright, vibrant and saturated. This includes exteriors with lush green grass and forests. Costuming with Candice’s deep red school uniform kilt and Axon’s own fiery red hair and freckles help too. The colours pop in a beautiful way.
Still, the movie’s tone is all over the place. The main (and consistent) feel is that of positivity, familial togetherness and romance. But the character of Douglas Benson from Another Dimension adds an element of science fiction. The film heavily implies that he’s not real (and serving up an important character moment). But it still feels quite strange. Further, there are scenes involving a substitute teacher that are so cartoon-y and out of place. They come across as cuts from another film haphazardly edited into this one.
Is the film cheesy? Yes. Is it schmaltzy? Undeniably so. But for all its faults, H is for Happiness has its heart firmly planted in the right place. Its boundless optimism and positivity comes across to some as precious in this dumpster-fire that is 2020. But for me, on a number of occasions, it made me smile. I’ll take that.