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.
Starring: Debbie Lynch-White, Robin L. Houmeau, David Roche, Alison Midstokke
Directed by: Alexandre Franchi
Written by: Joelle Bourjolly, Alexandre Franchi
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes