Monday, February 21, 2011

Happiness Runs (2010)

I caught this on Netflix--and it is a sobering film. It opens with what looks like 8mm home movies of a rural hippie commune in the 1960s with a very powerful soundtrack, and interviews that bring back so many memories of the good intentioned delusions of that time. Then the film flashes forward 20 years later. The adults are no longer young. Rutger Hauer (as usual) is pitch perfect as the spiritual leader of the commune, using his charisma as a way to have every woman in the place--and waiting (just barely) until the girls are old enough.  This is only alluded to--not shown (thank goodness).

The other adults are either showing the signs of too many years of mind-altering drugs, New Age delusion, or the wear of too many years.  While I have never been impressed with Andie McDowell as an actress (even when doing hair product commercials), she really does a fine job here as a woman who knows that something has gone terribly wrong, but is unwilling to face up to it, and leave the only structure that she has known for all this time.

But it is not the adults that are the tragedy--it is the kids, raised in a culture where the ten year olds are smoking pot (after all, everyone does), the teenagers are as promiscuous as the adults, and have lives as pointless and empty as you might expect.  It reminded me of a more somewhat extreme version of living in Sonoma County (except that everyone had separate houses, instead of living on a commune).

This is a harsh, uncompromising film.  It is dark.  It is depressing.  The filmmaker modeled the story on his own growing up in a rural Vermont commune.  The May 7, 2010 New York Times review says some nice things about it, but of course, there has to be one backhanded insult:
This strident exposé may gladden the hearts of some anti-’60s conservatives, but it is a shapeless mess steeped in prurience. Its grain of truthfulness, however, is just enough to leave you unsettled in the pit of your stomach.
 I'm not quite sure "prurience" is quite the right word here.  Yes, we see more of Hannah Hall naked than was really quite necessary.  On the other hand, there is a reason that some of the sex is in this film--to remind us that the mindless worship of sex as an end in itself is ultimately not very satisfying--it just leads to more and more combinations of parts, rather than confront that the deepest meaning in life is not sex, or any other fleshly pleasure.

The comments on the New York Times article include some indignant responses from others who grew up on the same commune as filmmaker Adam Sherman, and who think his portrayal is unfair and false.  That is the nice thing about calling a film "autobiographical": you don't have to make it literally true to still be a powerful commentary on what happens when you abandon the traditional structures.

By the way, I am not sure that I would call this a great film.  Maybe not even a particularly good film.  It is a film whose subject matter is so powerful that it transcends the filmmaker's craft.

1 comment:

Paul Sand said...

"never been impressed with Andie McDowell as an actress"

Wha...?! I can only conclude you've never seen Groundhog Day.

(Kidding. But not that much. I think she's pretty good.)