People who are shunned because they are physically unattractive are the subject of “Happy Face.” (Courtesy Dark Star)

People who are shunned because they are physically unattractive are the subject of “Happy Face.” (Courtesy Dark Star)

‘Happy Face’ takes in-depth view of individuals deemed unsightly

Clunky but genuine film tackles rarely addressed subject


Noteworthy for the seldom-addressed subject it depicts, “Happy Face” – opening Jan. 1 in select virtual theaters and Jan. 5 on video on demand — features people who have facial differences and experience discrimination in arenas ranging from employment to romance as a result.

Directed and cowritten by Canadian filmmaker Alexandre Franchi (“The Wild Hunt”) and set in 1990s Montreal, this sometimes clunky but narratively credible and emotionally truthful drama centers on a support group and self-help workshop composed of individuals who, due to illnesses, congenital conditions and accidents, have faces society deems malformed and unsightly. Each character has an individual story to tell, but nearly all have been bullied, mocked and shunned because of how they look.

Jocko (E.R. Ruiz), a cop who has facial scars that were caused by a fire, cites his appearance as the reason for a romantic breakup and for his ex’s refusal to reunite with him.

Otis (played by humorist and performer David Roche), a septuagenarian who has long felt like an outcast due to the facial disfigurement he was born with, wants to be accepted by his estranged family and get to know his grandchild.

We also meet a woman whose appearance has thwarted her hopes for a modeling career, along with a man who has lost his nose to cancer.

Two characters drive the story forward.

Vanessa (Debbie Lynch-White), who conducts the workshop and, being overweight, has her own experiences with being an outsider, leads her charges through activities designed to challenge them socially and boost their self-image and confidence. These include visiting restaurants and other places where people with facial differences are often seated in dark corners and judged. A trip to a public pool proves trying for, especially, Vanessa, who, wearing a bathing suit, is ridiculed by other swimmers.

We also meet Stan (Robin L’Houmeau), a 19-year-old Dungeons & Dragons fanatic whose terminally ill mother has scars and lesions on her skin. Having bandaged his conventionally attractive visage, Stan masquerades as a man with facial differences and joins the workshop in hopes it will help him better understand how his mother feels. Vanessa quickly brands Stan an imposter and wants to eject him, but members want him to stay. His confrontational manner and keen insights stir them.

As the characters begin to tackle their anxieties and brave a beauty-obsessed world that has ostracized them, the action sometimes advances stiltedly, and Stan and his personal issues occupy too much of Franchi and cowriter Joelle Bourjolly’s screenplay.

Stan’s ability to size up everyone he meets and to identify other group members’ darkest secrets is impossible to believe.

The focus on Stan takes screen time away from the other characters, who, had they received sharper attention, might have been riveting, heartbreaking or enlightening amusing presences.

Still, Franchi has woven an engaging tapestry that illuminates the everyday challenges faced by those whose faces contain scars, warts or other imperfections that don’t conform with notions of social acceptability. With the exception of a few Stan-related details, the people and scenarios keep us caring and seem genuine.

Credit also goes to the actors, most of whom have facial differences and some of whom have worked their own experiences into their characters.

Without exploitation, Franchi asks us to look at their faces and makes us embrace the humanity there.

As that happens, this movie, despite its flaws, makes a meaningful impression.


Happy Face


Starring: Debbie Lynch-White, Robin L. Houmeau, David Roche, Alison Midstokke

Directed by: Alexandre Franchi

Written by: Joelle Bourjolly, Alexandre Franchi

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Movies and TV

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at

Just Posted

Demonstrators commemorated the life of George Floyd and others killed by police outside S.F. City Hall on June 1, 2020.<ins></ins>
Chauvin verdict: SF reacts after jury finds ex-officer guilty on all charges

San Franciscans were relieved Tuesday after jurors found a former Minneapolis police… Continue reading

San Francisco Unified School District Board member Faauuga Moliga, right, pictured with Superintendent Vincent Matthews on the first day back to classrooms, will be board vice president for the remander of the 2121 term. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
Faauuga Moliga named as school board vice president to replace Alison Collins

The San Francisco school board on Tuesday selected board member Fauuga Moliga… Continue reading

Legislation by Supervisor Rafael Mandelman would require The City to add enough new safe camping sites, such as this one at 180 Jones St. in the Tenderloin, to accomodate everyone living on the street. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
City would create sites for hundreds of tents under new homeless shelter proposal

Advocates say funding better spent on permanent housing

An instructor at Sava Pool teaches children drowning prevention techniques. (Jordi Molina/ Special to the S.F. Examiner)
Indoor city pools reopen for lap swimming and safety classes

Two of San Francisco’s indoor city pools reopened Tuesday, marking another step… Continue reading

A construction worker rides on top of materials being transported out of the Twin Peaks Tunnel as work continues at West Portal Station on Thursday, August 16, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
SFMTA’s poor track record on capital projects risks losing ‘public trust’

Supervisors say cost overruns and delays could jeapordize future ballot revenue measures

Most Read