Vulnerability: Our Review of ‘Happy Place’

Vulnerability: Our Review of ‘Happy Place’

A doctor runs this movie’s titular Happy Place. And she tries to bring a semblance of that promise of happiness into fruition. Its lakefront location is good enough for most of the patients staying there. And she does her best with her individual therapy sessions with those patients. But Samira (Clark Backo) is as resistant as the other patients. She tells the doctor that five years of hearing ‘how do you feel’ doesn’t work anymore. That’s the film’s basic premise, one that Helen Shaver directs using Pamela Sinha’s script.

Sinha’s script for Happy Place is her adaptation of her own play, writing what Samira goes through during her stay. Part of Samira’s stay in the facility is dealing with the other patients. Empathizing with those characters’ burdens while simultaneously carrying her own. The patients’ conversations take place day and night. The nighttime scenes effectively shows these characters as voices reaching out to each other. Samira’s talking buddy is the woman rooming next door to her, Celine (Marie-Eve Perron), who’s keeping secrets from her family.

Another person Samira reluctantly befriends is Joyce (Sheila McCarthy), whose quirks can get into the other patients’ nerves. There’s also Mildred (Mary Walsh), the most outspoken patient in the facility. The daytime group scenes have its own effective dynamic. There’s one scene where the doctor actually reveals one of her traumas. This subverts this expectation, especially when it comes to dramas about mental facilities, where the doctors are the enemy. We sometimes forget that doctors are people too.

The scenes here remind us of the fallibility and vulnerability that some authority figures have. But these patients can’t always be together or with their doctor, showing that isolation becomes threatening to some of them. And that’s especially true with Samira who experiences flashbacks of the traumatic event that makes her need mental help. The camera lingers above her during both the therapy sessions and the flashbacks. There’s an intensity here as if we’re crawling under her skin.

A lot of the film consists of close-ups on Samira, capturing Backo as she evinces her character’s pain. It also shows her as this constant presence within the spaces she inhabits. It shows the facility depending on Samira’s feelings of isolation in a house even if it’s always full of people. And the scene sometimes switches to the apartment where someone sexually assaults her.

The places Samira inhabits are perpetually dangerous. One of Happy Place‘s messages is that both everything and nothing can stay the same. Samira watches people leave the facility without the place solving its problems. What makes this film a solid one is its lack of interest in healing its characters. Or at least, it shows that healing in less conventional ways.

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While Paolo Kagaoan is not taking long walks in shrubbed areas, he occasionally watch movies and write about them. His credentials are as follows: he has a double major in English and Art History. This means that, for example, he will gush at the art direction in the Amityville house and will want to live there, which is a terrible idea because that house has ghosts. Follow him @paolokagaoan on Instagram but not while you're working.
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