This film is really something special. I had a genuinely visceral reaction to it and it moved me in ways I totally hadn’t anticipated. In the closing moments I was simultaneously in tears of joy and sadness.
This in itself is not what makes it truly special; I would say I responded similarly to about three other movies last year so it’s rare for sure but it’s not unheard of. What is exceptional here is that I can’t remember another time that this has happened with a kid’s film. I mean Toy Story 3 got me in the feels but not like this.
Look at those movies I loved in this way in 2020; Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Babyteeth and Never Rarely Sometimes Always. One of these is a beautiful but ill fated love story, one celebrates life as the protagonist loses hers and the last is a drama about a friendship that comes into its own as one of the party seeks an abortion having been abused. These are the kinds of stories that, if handled well, are likely to elicit an emotional response. H for Happiness is not like this though; it is the tale of a young girl coping with the tribulations of school and family more in the manner of films like Ramona & Beezus and Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer.
While it’s quirky twelve year old heroine might be fairly typical of these types of stories though, with both the pigtails and the self assurance of Pippi Longstocking, the narrative has sophisticated themes of infant mortality, depression, divorce, mental illness and disability. No doubt this all comes from the book the movie is based on, My Life as an Alphabet by Barry Jonsberg, and this exploration of the challenges of life and growing up is not uncommon in children’s literature. Jacqueline Wilson is particularly adept at writing in this way. I’ve not really seen the precise balance needed for this handled on screen though. Like the lives of many adolescents affected by tragedy, there are moments of charm and joy but the sadness is alway there behind everything. This makes H for Happiness sound heavy but it isn’t, it is a delight, and is a wonderful film for preteens to watch with their parents. The movie is pitched perfectly, knowing and respecting the intelligence of its young audience.
All of this is should most certainly be credited to celebrated stage director John Sheedy and writer Lisa Hoppe, both making their filmic debut, but the cast are also superb. Richard Roxburgh, best known to most as the dastardly Duke in Moulin Rouge, shows great subtlety and compassion as the father and Emma Booth is really strong as the mother, broken by loss. Miriam Margolyes offers the one very familiar face and is typically good but the star of the show is undeniably thirteen year old Daisy Axon as the irrepressible Candice.
Axon is not required to show extreme levels of anguish, being instead the positive force pitched against everything, but she does have emotional moments amidst the fun and she is the anchor around which all is held in place. Candice is not like other kids, probably because she is autistic to some extent but this is a label that both she and the film faces and rejects which is just another way in which the whole thing has a sophistication and maturity setting it apart from the Diary of a Wimpy Kid films it might otherwise sit alongside.
I cannot rave about this film enough. Heralding from Australia it has just crept out silently for streaming on iTunes and Amazon in the UK and it is perfect with the Easter break coming up. This week is also autism awareness week, I wonder if that is a coincidence. Either way let H is for Happiness be one for the the holidays.
The Ripley Factor:
You want to see a positive portrayal of a woman facing hard circumstances with strength and autonomy then watch Captain Marvel or Erin Brokovich (or indeed any of the three films I mentioned at the start of this piece). If you want to see all of that with a girl though then you are in the right place. The reason this film is moving without being oppressive is entirely because of Axon’s Candice and a character that could so easily have been schmaltzy or even grating is actually unfailingly inspirational, no matter your age or gender.