Writer/director Sam Levinson makes an incredibly impressive debut with the darkly comedic drama ‘Another Happy Day’, a dysfunctional family flick that’s far more than simply just that. A hit at Sundance (and a winner of the Waldo Salt Award for Screenwriting), Levinson not only is able to craft an old fashioned acting showcase of a film, but he is able to join the growing list of second generation filmmakers that don’t make you think of their parental units at all. Levinson had no prior experience behind the camera until this film, but it doesn’t show at all. When you combine that with his writing skills and ability to coax the best out of his actors and actresses…the result is something rather special. He gets memorable work from Ellen Barkin and Ezra Miller to go along with an eclectic ensemble cast (notably including Ellen Burstyn). The flick is never boring and always has a bit more going on than it initially seems like. At this point, I don’t hesitate to call this one of the 20 best films of the year so far. Yes, it’s just that good.
A story of family dynamics and how the best of intentions can lead to the worst of results, the film follows Lynn (Barkin) and her children Elliot (Miller) and Ben (Daniel Yelsky) as they head to Annapolis for the wedding of her eldest son Dylan (Michael Nardelli). She’s a high strung woman, always on the verge of tears it seems. Elliot has been in and out of rehab, but still maintains a steady stream of drug use. They constantly are at war with one another, and when Lynn arrives at her parents home, she find plenty more people to fight with. Her matriarchal mother Doris (Burstyn) rules over the family like a Queen, while her dying father (George Kennedy) watches a lot of Fox News. While dealing with her family, she also is in contact with her ex husband Paul (Thomas Haden Church) and his new wife (Demi Moore). Lynn is worried that her daughter from their marriage Alice (Kate Bosworth) is going to have trouble seeing Paul again, setting into motion more arguments. Everyone in this film has good intentions for their relatives, but constant backstabbing and bickering lead to them all seeming to be at war with one another. In this film, what’s unsaid is often more important than what is.
Ellen Barkin deserves to be in the conversation for Best Actress with her hysterical performance of a woman on the edge. It’s a different sort of role for Barkin and she absolutely nails it. In a film chock full of good performances, hers is outstanding and very memorable. You see Lynn make some terrible decisions, but you often just want to hug her. The same can be said for Ezra Miller’s acid-tinged portrait of a troubled teen. It’s a very different role than that in ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’, but Miller is just as good here. He’s certainly someone to watch. The other noteworthy performance is from Ellen Burstyn. Burstyn takes what might have been a bit of a melodramatic character and infuses some surprising humor into the role. It’s very interesting to see. The rest of the cast is strong, with Bosworth, Moore, Haden Church, and Kennedy making the most of their moments. Daniel Yelsky is raw but good as the youngest son, and the cast is rounded out by the lieks of Siobhan Fallon, Jeffrey DuMunn, Eamon O’Rourke, and others. They all do their part, but Barkin and Miller get the highest marks.
Sam Levinson, along with his cinematographer Ivan Strasburg and Sound Mixer Felix Andrew, create a unique look and sound for the flick. Visually, there aren’t a lot of closeups, which you normally see lots of in films of this ilk. In terms of sound, conversations are often done over other ones, and certain dialogue is missed, creating the sense that you’re listening in to a real family. If you miss what they said, you piece it together later. Levinson has a clear vision for this movie, and he nails it. His direction shows a maturity beyond his years the script is crystal clear in its intent. There’s a subtle yet strong political undercurrent to the work, though it never becomes preachy. Everyone is yelling, but no one is listening, something highlighted with the Fox News that is often playing in the background of scenes. Levinson has the potential to be an A-list filmmaker, mark my words.
‘Another Happy Day’ has moments of comedy, moments of melodrama, and moments that defy genre. It’s a very unique and immensely satisfying work that introduces us to an exciting new filmmaker. In the coming years, I fully expect to be praising future Sam Levinson works as well as Ezra Miller performances. Factor in the always solid Ellens, both Barkin and Burstyn, and this is a film with a lot to offer. It opens next month, and I urge everyone to seek it out. You’ll be glad you did!
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