By Don Simpson | May 18, 2010
Director: Adam Sherman
Writer: Adam Sherman
Starring: Mark L. Young, Hanna Hall, Jesse Plemons, Laura Peters, Shiloh Fernandez
Presumably sometime in the late 1960s, Victor’s (Mark L. Young) parents (Andie MacDowell and Mark Boone Junior) discovered what they thought was utopia – a far out rural hippie commune founded on the precepts of free love, drug experimentation and freshly grown vegetables. Twenty years later, finding themselves trapped like rats in this no longer utopian cage, the offspring of the free love generation have evolved into bitter and jaded punk rockers. For this next generation, freedom has become unbearably oppressive. Brimming with animosity for their spaced-out and disillusioned parents, these kids will do whatever they can to not follow in their parents’ footsteps; they just can’t shake the promiscuity, but they do turn to harder drugs and darker music. Their chosen soundtrack – The Buzzcocks, Joy Division, Fear, Bad Brains, UK Subs, Cro-Mags, The Descendents, Siouxsie & The Banshees – perfectly reveals the inner turmoil and angst raging within their teenage bodies.
Victor’s desire to escape the confines of the commune is the strongest of them all – but how can a teenager with no education or money survive in the real world? When Becky (Hanna Hall), one of the few lucky teens who actually escaped (to attend college), returns to the commune Victor’s escape plan is temporarily thwarted. Victor wants to whisk Becky, his childhood sweetheart, away with him; but Becky has returned to the commune to care for her dying father (John Walcutt).
Propelled by the stress of her father’s terminal illness, Becky attempts to escape reality by way of a strict regiment of drugs, booze and fucking like a bunny (The Virgin Suicides’ Cecilia Lisbon is a virgin no longer). Several of the boys take advantage of Becky’s easiness and propensity for nakedness, but at the end of the night she always seems to end up in Victor’s bed. With much more haste and purpose than the other teens, Becky is headed down a self-destructive path; it is not until Becky achieves her destiny (a moment eerily foretold by Victor’s recurring prophetic nightmares) that Victor will garner enough motivation to pack his bag and escape to the real world.
According to Donovan, “happiness runs in a circular motion” but writer-director Adam Sherman’s cinematic debut reveals that happiness runs in a downward spiral. Based loosely on Sherman’s own upbringing, Happiness Runs is an extremely dour portrait of communal living. Sure, for its first generation this commune might have been the great utopia; but Sherman’s film reveals that a structure-less land of free love and limitless drugs is not a suitable environment for children.
True to its setting and the drug-induced mindset of the characters, the cinematography (by Aaron Platt) is stunningly and hypnotically stylized giving Happiness Run a carnivalesque feel – this is Sherman’s way to stress just how unreal life on the commune is. Happiness Runs is hauntingly beautiful to watch, but Sherman’s perspective is so biased and so vengeful that the film’s message curdles in his steaming enmity for the elders of the commune. The aged hippies are presented as mere stereotypes to be despised and ridiculed by the audience. (Sherman’s teens are – to quote the Dead Milkmen – “dreaming acid dreams of a hippie soufflé.”) We are forced to see the adults just as the commune’s younger generation does – as a pathetic joke worthy of nothing other than our disdain – and the youth are revealed to be martyrs whose lives were destroyed by their horribly oblivious parents.