It may be true, as Leo Tolstoy said, that “all happy families resemble one another, [but] each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” There’s enough unhappiness surrounding the family at the center of Sam Levinson’s Another Happy Day, however, that anyone who has ever experienced any familial dysfunction is likely to see a little bit of themselves or their relatives in the film’s darkly compelling story.
Ellen Barkin plays Lynn, who, having survived an abusive marriage, is emotionally damaged in her own right. But she has plenty of other problems, too, which have weighed on her until she is downright neurotic. She interacts her first husband (Thomas Haden Church) at the wedding of her eldest son, who she hasn’t seen in years. She puts up with the aggressive behavior and snide comments of her ex-husband’s new wife (Demi Moore). She sews sleeves onto the dress of her daughter (Kate Bosworth), Alice, who has been slicing her skin with a razor for years. She keeps an eye on her clinically depressed/violent/drug-addicted middle son, Elliot (Ezra Miller, also appearing in this winter’s We Need to Talk About Kevin). She tries to make her youngest son, who has Asperger’s syndrome, feel included. She attempts to justify her life to her head-in-the-sand mother (Ellen Burstyn) and sick father (George Kennedy). She defends her children when her immature, gossiping sisters tease Elliot and talk about self-mutilation as a fad—“the new anorexia,” they say.
It’s a lot for one movie—and in the hands of less capable actors, it would probably be too much. It would take only a few missteps for Another Happy Day to devolve into a caricature of the modern family, but the lead actors convincingly adopt the tics, quirks, and demons of their characters, thus keeping the story from dipping into the territory of absurdity. The most unrealistic element of the film is that there isn’t a single person in the family who doesn’t seem to need professional help. Even the most minor characters are portrayed negatively, wandering around naked and drinking too much or instigating arguments at the dinner table. Lynn’s current husband, Lee (Jeffrey DeMunn), is perpetually even-keeled, but only because he seems incapable of understanding the chaos around him and even less capable of communicating with his wife or step-children about it.
Barkin’s performance is pristine, and she is complemented brilliantly by the young Miller, who plays one of the more complex characters. He’s oddly likable as a sarcastic teen trying to cope with a chemical imbalance that pushes him to hurt the same people he protects and cares for so deeply at other times. Bosworth, similarly, has grown up nicely after a stint as a teen actor in the likes of Blue Crush. The wedding is clearly a constant struggle for her Alice, who is desperate for normalcy and an understanding of the repressed childhood memories that have defined her life for nearly twenty years.
Movies about messed-up families have been done before, as have movies about weddings. But, like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, they’re all a little different—and this one is worth exploring.