14th Jan2021

‘Happy Face’ VOD Review

by Chris Cummings

Stars: E.R. Ruiz, Cindy Nicholsen, David Roche, Dawn Shaw, Robin L’Houmeau, Debbie Lynch-White, Dean Perseo, Noémie Kocher | Written by Joelle Bourjolly, Alexandre Franchi | Directed by Alexandre Franchi

Happy Face is a very different kind of film. Beginning as a personal concept and going on to an Indiegogo campaign, using crowdfunding as a way to make it happen, Alexandre Franchi (The Wild Hunt) went out of his way, with passion and a desire, to create a film that promotes diversity and shows real people with real disabilities and facial differences on screen in a way that isn’t presented as farcical, nor overly saccharine, nor merely tragic. The courage of these individuals is something Franchi explores, showing them, as he mentioned in his campaign, as people not just with disfigurements, but people with their own personal desires, relationships and insecurities. What a beautiful idea, what a novel approach.

The story itself follows a young boy named Stan (Robin L’Houmeau), a handsome and intelligent young adult whose mother has cancer and as a way to attempt to reconnect and understand how she feels, a woman who is struggling with her loss of self worth due to her changing body because of her illness, he goes on to deform his own face using bandages and visits a support group for people with disfigurements.

There is a lot to discuss about Happy Face, both as a film with its own unique and compelling tale, but also as a project, with its own deep rooted story behind it. A story that is incredibly personal to Franchi, the director, a man who has spoken about how he lost his mother to cancer when he was growing up, and also, like Stan in the film did, felt a sense of shame about the disfigurement that her illness brought upon her. The road to the film seeing release has been a rocky and unstable one, also, with Franchi being told by various companies that the film isn’t “what people want to see” and that it would be a “hard-sell”. The dangerous and awful cliches that the world of film, especially Hollywood, has bred is handled and confronted head-on with Happy Face and the films’ refusal to shy away from presenting a story of honesty featuring individuals who themselves have dealt with real challenges. When Franchi himself overcame bone cancer a number of years ago, Happy Face became a major focus of his, and you can tell.

In creating a story so incredibly honest and true, there is something extremely relatable about the film and the way it forces us to look at our own judgments while giving us characters that are beautifully written and acted. It confronts the notion of judging people before we get to know them, and it does so in an intelligent and thoughtful way. We get to know these various characters that Stan meets in the support group. There are no frills going on, no condescending elements that have become commonplace in films that deal with any kind of disability. There are no special effects, no filters and no theatrical make-up. Franchi doesn’t hide his actors or mask them, he lets them be, lets them shine and allows them a chance to tell their stories. The characters we encounter each have facial differences that are very real. I think that’s incredible, and more important than perhaps some might realise. It’s said that over 90% of characters with disabilities, in both movies and on television, are played by actors without a disability. This film aims to alter that statistic whilst also looking deeply into the psyche of what makes human beings so afraid to look at someone who looks different to themselves.

Robin L’Houmeau is excellent as Stan and his performance is wonderful, showing a range of emotions as he goes on this obscure path to discovery. The remainder of the cast all do a remarkable job too in their various roles. Alison Midstokke’s Maggie, E.R. Ruiz’s Jocko and David Roche’s Otis stood out to me as incredible characters and performances amidst an entire group of actors who more than deliver. There are some actors here that are untested and inexperienced in film or acting, and yet there are so many stand-out moments and unbelievably moving performances from the cast. It’s quite amazing. Debbie Lynch-White as Vanessa, the woman who runs and leads the group, gives a hell of a performance too, often helping to provide a necessary bridge between the stories of those who attend her support group. You can see, hear and feel the raw and legitimate feelings in many of the scenes we see and the some of the accounts we hear. It’s a respectfully handled yet boldly candid component of what makes up Happy Face.

Franchi and his crew did a marvellous and commendable job, not only in the way the film was made and the manner in which they went about staying true to his aim, but also in making it all happen. That deserves a lot of credit. Claudine Sauvé’s cinematography is on point and the writing from Franchi and Joelle Bourjolly is pretty wonderful. It is, without a doubt, a very personal and authentic movie, made more personal by the way Franchi allows the real-life journeys of his cast to come into play as the story progresses. You may laugh (there are some light and funny moments to be found here), you may cry (I know I certainly did) and you will damn sure feel the power of just how emotional a story this is.

In a world drenched with falsified and filtered images of somebody’s idea of perfection amongst a media obsessively portraying everything to be shiny, glossy, flawless and smooth, Happy Face discusses our differences and our similarities, our insecurities and fears, talking about those who feel bad about their bodies and appearances in a relatable way. It’s a moving, poignant, charming film that should be seen. I, for one, hope it is seen, by many people. It deserves to be. Alexandre Franchi has created a film that is so exceptionally honest and sincere, and I, for one, salute him for doing so. Happy Face is a soulful exploration of humanity and a strong critique on the media’s depiction of faultlessness. It’s also uplifting, hopeful and heartbreaking. It’s relatable to everybody, and even more-so to those who have felt different, or those with disabilities or illnesses that have brought on a lack of self-worth and discomfort in being part of the “normal”. Remarkable.

***** 5/5

Happy Face is available in the US now on digital and on demand, courtesy of Dark Star Releasing.


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