The intensely knotted psychological complications of open relationships and sexual identity get a mostly breezy, surface-level treatment from director Rodney Evans in “The Happy Sad,” yet strong acting and occasional dives into deeper territory make it worth the while. Full of warmth and refreshingly matter-of-fact sexuality, the film has its heart in the right place, yet it’s ultimately a bit blander than its subject matter ought to demand, and its chamber-piece intimacy and pileup of coincidences scan particularly awkwardly given its convincingly wide-open depiction of New York. Metropolitan arthouse screenings should be well attended.
It was nine years ago that Evans’ excellent feature debut, “Brother to Brother,” heralded the arrival of a promising young director, as well as star Anthony Mackie, in a film that depicted a time-blurring meeting between a modern-day gay teenager and a Harlem Renaissance artist. Evans’ follow-up has been slow in coming, and working from a script adapted by Ken Urban from his own play, the director examines a far more low-key cultural collision here, focusing on the sexual intersections between two couples, one black and gay, one white and (nominally) straight.
Marcus (Leroy McClain) and Aaron (Charlie Barnett) are deep into the sixth year of an idyllic coupling, and start to discuss opening up their relationship to outside flings, setting a raft of ground rules that seem to exist only to be broken. Meanwhile, in the restaurant where Aaron waits tables, schoolteacher Annie (Sorel Carradine) is busy breaking up with her younger boyfriend, Stan (Cameron Scoggins), the frontman for a Mumfordian indie band who demands to know the name of his (nonexistent) rival for her affections. Panicking under his interrogation, Annie blurts out the name of her female colleague, Mandy (Maria Dizzia).
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In one of the film’s several credulity-straining coincidences — all these unacquainted characters seem to frequent the same three or four locations, and all have friends in common — Marcus’ first foray into swingerdom turns out to be an Internet-booked date with the closeted bisexual Stan, while Annie, wondering if her slip of the tongue might have had some Freudian implications, starts to gravitate closer to Mandy. Aaron, whose dalliances never make it onscreen, grows increasingly jealous and melodramatic, while underdeveloped subplots involving an antisocial standup comedian and a double-arm amputation hover puzzlingly around the margins.
Evans works hard to round these characters as much as he can, though the dialogue is at times almost exasperatingly naturalistic — full of half-thoughts and meandering exchanges — while the narrative contrivances begin to push the film dangerously close to sitcom territory. Yet as soon as one begins to lose interest in his windy cast of loquacious lovers, Evans will surprise with a sudden burst of startling humor or piercing honesty. (A scene in which Stan, adopting a rudely unaffectionate demeanor toward his down-low male lover, abruptly asks Marcus to hold him after a hookup is a well-delivered gut-punch.)
Evans approaches the film’s several sex scenes with admirable composure, neither leering nor coyly looking away, and the gay trysts are granted just as much attention as the straight ones. Acting is sensitive and well directed all around, with McClain and Barnett oddly proving the film’s most believable couple, despite also being its most unlikely.