Film Review: ‘The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki’ Packs a Featherweight Punch

ollimaki_posterYou’ve seen it countless times before. An underdog fighter gets the chance of a lifetime to compete for the world championship title against a formidable opponent. He undergoes rigorous training to overcome the odds, often to triumphant ends. Juho Kuosmanen breaks away from the formula with “The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki,” however, putting his own original spin on the classic boxing movie.

Based on the true story of would-be Finnish hero Olli Mäki, the film takes place in the 1960s. Olli is a country boy who makes his living baking bread, while also competing in boxing at a mostly amateur level. One day, however, he gets chosen for a major professional bout. Despite his inexperience, he will face off against the World Featherweight Champion from the USA. Everyone is excited, none more so than his ambitious manager Elis, the mastermind behind this historical event. But as the anticipation builds and the pressure mounts, Olli finds himself contending with another life-changing experience – falling in love.

At once unconventional and classic, there’s a hint of irony to the film’s title. Referencing a line in the film about the impending joy of winning the championship bout, the character instead feels little excitement for his big day. He is overwhelmed with concerns about his weight (he is a few kilograms over his assigned weight class) and the bright spotlight cast by the media. And writer-director Kuosmanen deftly emphasizes Olli’s diminutive stature and vulnerability before we even get to know the character fully. In one early scene, Olli engages in a discussion about his appropriate weight class (notably contrasting the storied heavyweight division), while another shows him embarrassingly standing on a stool in a photo shoot next to a model.

Understandably, crippling self doubt starts to creep in as he senses the magnitude of his situation. But there’s a relatability to his insecurity that makes him, and the film by extension, endlessly watchable. As much as he wants to succeed, he finds it difficult to step up to the plate. And through Jarkko Lahti’s skillfully internalized, soft-spoken performance, we see a mirror to our imperfect selves.

Fittingly, Kuosmanen thus eschews training montages and inspirational monologues for more subtle drama bordering on mumblecore (to the film’s benefit and detriment). In fact, there is minimal actual boxing depicted in the film. And as we compare the dedicated enthusiasm of his manager to Olli’s punishing weight loss tactics – starvation, sweating in a sauna – just to be eligible to compete, it’s an astute reminder that the spectacle surrounding professional sport is often more enjoyed by the fans than the athletes themselves.

But the film does find joy in the everyday banality outside of the ring. Eero Milonoff’s black and white cinematography is gorgeous to look at, a throwback to the European New Wave films of the time. And particularly in Olli’s tender interactions (cycling through the forest, strolling on the waterfront) with his new love Raija (played by Oona Airola), it helps to evoke the enchantment he feels.

Ultimately, “The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki” asks us what we value in life. Some may crave the success of being the best of the best, while others may be content with the simple happiness of finding true love. For our protagonist Olli Mäki the answer is obvious, as this boxing film turns out to be just as romantic as “Rocky,” even without grand gestures. For those attuned to this outlook, watching this slice-of-life drama will therefore make for a happy day indeed.

“The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki” is the Finnish submission for the 2016 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

GRADE: (★★★)