Norwegian director Anne Sewitsky’s feature debut, “Happy, Happy” (originally titled “Insanely Happy,” though there may be something lost in translation) is the story of a housewife who tries to remain happy even though her family seems to be coming apart. Kaja (Agnes Kittelsen) is concerned because her husband (Joachim Rafaelsen) doesn’t seem to love her anymore, her son (Oskar Hernaes Brandso) is constantly irritated with her, and the bleak snowy landscape is starting to swallow her and her IKEA-perfect house whole.
Perhaps just to get more social interaction, Kaja and her husband decide to rent out a second house right next to their own; the new tenants are city people, a high-powered lawyer (Maibritt Saerens), her husband (Henrik Rafaelsen), and their adopted African son (Ram Shihab Ebedy). Soon Kaja and the man next door begin an affair; before the film ends we learn that the lawyer had previously cheated on her husband, and that Kaja’s husband might be in the closet. The two boys also begin playing a disturbing game in which Kaja’s son pretends to be a slave driver, tying up the tenants’ son (who doesn’t speak) and saying he owns him.
It’s certainly a cliché to describe all films made somewhere near the Arctic circle as Bergmanesque, but “Happy Happy” actually is. There is a gentleness to the proceedings that would never be present in the more judgmental world of American cinema. Even the slave-game is clearly presented as Kaja’s son’s reaction to his parents’ troubled marriage, not some twisted fantasy he dreamed up on his own. After plenty of rolling around in their neighbors’ beds, everybody returns to their own household and pretty much, we’re left to assume, live happily ever after.
Though “Happy Happy” was solid overall (it won the narrative World Cinema Jury Award at Sundance this year), its tone was frequently uneven. It’s always a challenge to meld comedy and drama without everything disintegrating, and when you add this much sexual tension to a comedic storyline, it makes it even harder. It’s still definitely worth seeing, though, as the Hollywood Reporter pointed out during Sundance, given the slavery storyline, it may not get theatrical distribution in the US. Here’s hoping it at least makes it to the art house circuit.