All-inclusive, Happy Face features a cast of actors with facial deformities performing bravely on-screen. An initial stranger to their plight, young Stan (Robin L’Houmeau) encounters the group first as a fraud, his head wrapped in tape to shape a deformity and then wrapped with bandages. He cannot fool the experts for long. At this turn, the film looks like it may be some kind of exploitation, but it is anything but. Stan has joined the group to deal with his own grave pain, to understand his mother’s cancer, which has grown and caused a deformity of her own. Outside the group he is a normal young man – he meets women, plays Dungeons & Dragons, explores his final moments of adolescence before his impending loss concretes his manhood for good.
It is a difficult and therapeutic story. The cast of the support group is really excellent. We are so used to deformities being created through both practical and special effects work that it is a relief to allow folks with genuine disfiguration on the screen. The director, Alexandre Franchi, ensures we get to know each individual’s internal beauty. In a late scene, when Violent Femmes’ “Add it Up” plays, the members dance around in new costume and their perfections are brought to life. We see the tangible good they have to offer. Who they are as people. Happy Face is wholly concerned not with exploitation, but with poetic justice for its cast.
The careening narrative of the group can be initially hard to fathom. How they’d develop smoothly in conjunction with an outsider’s story and all find the same moment of sincerity and release, able to overcome their prejudices for the outsider, just as a society must of them. We’re often working backward here. We start with the solution of the support group and work up to the problem that allows its members to surrender to it. Stan may find his home in the support group with little resistance, but isn’t it still an offensive measure, when there are groups better designed to handle the nature of his grief?
Ultimately, this critic is won over by the seeming pureness of Happy Face’s heart. It’s hard watching Stan fool the regulars with his transparent routine. When he begins to help them overcome individual hardships, substance emerges in their relationships. The group deals with everything from excess weight to boils on the face, and they come to understand Stan’s great pain is not his disability but his mother’s. For anyone in grief, this French-Canadian piece may be a helpful movie. Love and acceptance is the celebration behind Happy Face, a beautifully inclusive film that dares to turn differences into strengths.