“Happy Face” is a defiant, generically unclassifiable film that dares viewers to question its sensitivity. The focus is on a 19 year old named Stan (Robin L’Houmeau) who wraps gauze around his head and joins a support group for people with atypical facial appearances. When the enforcement exercises suggested by group leader Vanessa (Debbie Lynch-White) don’t do much good, Stan takes command and shows his new friends that cognitive behavioral therapy is nowhere near as cathartic as dumping trash in a gaping restaurant patron. Stan’s vision for the cohort is a cross between an intrusive version of the talk cure and a fighting club.
In Montreal, Happy Face stars as Alison Midstokke, who has a rare disease that affects the bones and tissues of the face. She plays a hand-held model with full-body shots in its sights, and ER Ruiz as a police officer whose appearance has changed as a result of a car accident during a chase. They project nuanced, charismatic mixtures of confidence and wounded pride. But is it problematic to make a movie in which they need an implausible cheater to lead them to personal breakthroughs using character building lessons derived from Dungeons & Dragons?
The director Alexandre Franchi, who wrote the script with Joëlle Bourjolly, safeguards himself against this accusation by drawing a tense comparison between Stan and Don Quixote and presenting Stan himself with unsolved challenges. (His mother, played by Noémie Kocher, with whom he is worryingly close – she is shown scrubbing him in the bathtub – dies of multiple brain tumors.)
“Happy Face” dares to be distinctive, and that’s something even if the demeanor – especially Stan’s – isn’t always convincing.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes. Watch virtual cinemas.