For helmer Adam Sherman, who grew up surrounded by sex and drugs in a polygamous hippie commune, the semiautobiographical feature debut “Happiness Runs” serves as an uneasy exercise in either therapy or revenge. Set two decades after the flower children had children, trippy pic shows the consequences of free-love living on the next generation, who seek the sense of social order their parents rejected. Sherman’s personal wounds feel fresh, which makes for a superficially beautiful but otherwise bitter story centered around one teen’s suicide — a downer Strand Releasing likely will have more luck pitching to prurient looky-loos than enlightened eyes.
Vintage homemovie footage sets the scene, depicting a bygone era of tantric yoga and bohemian living as a period of blissful naivete. But all that sex inevitably led to children, and an ominous “20 years later” label disrupts the idyllic tone as blonde Becky (Hanna Hall) passes judgment on the failed experiment. “They never planned for the future,” she says in voiceover, explaining how their parents thought they’d never grow old (Becky, a college student, has been drawn back to the commune to tend to her cancer-stricken father), while the kids were supposed to stay young forever (instead, they experiment freely with sex and drugs).
Becky’s return upsets what passes for normalcy in the commune, where cult leader Insley (Rutger Hauer) hypnotizes (or “runs”) the women, bedding a different one each night, while kids sit around untended, smoking joints in trees. With Becky around, jealousy flares among the teen boys. Sherman’s proxy here is Victor (Mark L. Young), a mopey young man who spends much of his time dreaming or doing dope with his hothead friend Chad (Jesse Plemons of “Friday Night Lights,” whose fate is the pic’s one surprise). Becky seeks validation through sex, while Victor has more traditional notions of coupling and doesn’t want to share his puppy-lust object with anybody.
The characters are composites of Sherman’s childhood acquaintances, though the reasons he cares about them appear too personal to communicate here. As is true of the casually hedonistic models in an Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue, the less we know about their insecurities, the more satisfying the fantasy. On closer inspection, they all want out, coping in their various unsettling ways: through promiscuity, drugs or self-inflicted wounds. Sherman blames the parents, presenting a “Lord of the Flies”-like world in which the kids make their own rules in the absence of adult oversight. But the general lack of discipline extends to the filmmaking itself, which feels scattered and unfocused.
Though wisps of plot surround them — Victor’s mother (Andie MacDowell, her brow permanently furrowed) financially supports the commune but refuses to give her son the money to leave, while the return of local drug dealer Shiloh (Shiloh Fernandez) introduces one more rival for Becky’s attention — Sherman makes little effort to organize these elements into a cohesive narrative. His strength lies in conjuring hallucinatory visuals (baby-faced teens brooding beside an idyllic lake or running through fire-charred desert wastelands), which puts an unfair burden on his inexperienced cast to make us care as they slog toward the far-from-happy finale foretold from the beginning.