“Happy Happy” is a winning comedy that gets good-natured fun out of characters behaving quite badly. While first-time feature director Anne Sewitsky wobbles a bit incorporating some of the eventual darker notes in the script by Ragnhild Tronvoll (also making her debut), pic ultimately pulls off a fairly ambitious narrative agenda with a wrap both credible and crowdpleasing. Foreign sales prospects are upbeat for the Sundance grand jury prizewinner, with remake rights potentially a hot commodity.
Genial Sigve (Henrik Rafaelsen) and edgier Elisabeth (Maibritt Saerens) are sophisticated new arrivals in a snowy Norwegian backwater, along with little Noa (Ram Shihab Ebedy), a wide-eyed Ethiopian adoptee who doesn’t talk much. They’re received with near-hysterical enthusiasm by neighbor Kaja (Agnes Kittelsen), a schoolteacher whose excessive perkiness seems to compensate for the sour humor of husband Eirik (Joachim Rafaelsen). Sensing the tension between them, only child Theodor (Oskar Hernaes Brandso) has opted to side with his dad.
The two young boys make fast friends, even if Theo’s ideas about Noe’s African slavery heritage are decidedly politically incorrect. Over a couple of dinners, the adults quickly discover the cracks in each other’s relationships. When Sigve blurts out that they have moved here to separate Elisabeth from an extramarital affair, neglected and sexually desperate Kaja’s response is to impulsively offer him her own carnal favors. They immediately plunge into a liaison that’s physically revelatory, at least for Kaja, and provides the warmth neither gets from his or her spouse. Meanwhile it becomes clear that Eirik’s “hunting trips” are of the “Brokeback Mountain” variety, seeking game not suitable for family consumption.
Once all secrets are forced out, the two shaken households temporarily reshuffle their occupancy assignments before order — albeit a new order — is restored.
Pic’s friendly air is a major plus given that some of the behaviors displayed here cross a comedic line into the seriously cruel and irresponsible. Sewitsky isn’t an adept enough director yet to pull off seamlessly all the tonal shifts required, and Tronvoll’s very bright script has a few small but notable gaps that should have been filled in. (In particular, we see Noa interact with his adoptive parents so little it sometimes seems they’ve forgotten they’re raising a child.) But her writing is incisive even when it risks pushing the envelope farther than the feature’s lightly farcical emphasis can handle. And “Happy Happy” comes up with a terrific Greek-chorus device that restores good humor at the darkest moments: merrily incongruous entre’act performances of traditional American spirituals and hymns by an a cappella male quartet.
Perfs are first-rate. Professionally packaged, smartly paced pic could have paid more attention to its nondescript visual presentation. Original-language title translates as “Insanely Happy.”