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Film Review: ‘Happy 40th’

Four friends reunite to celebrate a disabled, withdrawn woman's birthday in Madoka Raine's modest but impressive indie drama.

Yvonne Woods, Brian Slaten, Madoka Raine, Robyn Cohen, Jenni Blong.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3847958/

It’s not a very happy birthday party for the principal celebrant of “Happy 40th,” who’s spent two years isolated and withdrawn since a serious car accident. She reunites with old friends in a chamber piece that first-time feature writer-director Madoka Raine handles with considerable skill, while also handing herself a plum part as the most obviously dysfunctional among those gathered at a remote winter home for a weekend reunion. Purportedly shot over nine days on a budget of $35,000, this satisfying indie drama may not have the name cast or plot-hook muscle to score theatrical exposure, but it certainly merits further fest exposure and niche home-format distribution — and in an industry where there wasn’t such pronounced gender imbalance, it would certainly boost Raine to the rungs of at least TV-episode directorial employability.

Sophia (Yvonne Woods) hasn’t left her rural home since she landed in a wheelchair — which (though it takes some time before we realize this) is due to an accident in which her husband, Ben (Brian Slaten), plowed their car into a tree. While he’s intact, she’s partially paralyzed as a result. Apparently ashamed of her disability, she has since withdrawn from all public exposure, to the point of agoraphobia.

So it’s a big deal that in honor of her 40th birthday, their best friends from college are coming to visit: Train wreck Kat (Raine), who’s clearly not past her substance-abuse problems (and gets dropped off by a one-night-stand); overly excitable dancer-turned-dog-kennel proprietress Sasha (Robyn Cohen); and glamorous actress Ana (Jenni Blong), currently enjoying great success on a hit TV series. All have their secrets, needless to say, including unspoken marital strains between Sophia and Ben.

Nonetheless, Raine astutely downplays the potential for melodrama and shocking revelations. (Even more admirably, she resists the Screenwriting 101 demand to have everyone reconcile with everyone else in the end.) While progress begins to meander a bit midway, it pulls taut again after a crisis that feels well-judged.

The performances have the lived-in feel that comes from most likely engaging actors in a project’s development process, with relationships not spelled out more than necessary. Despite all apparent haste, budgetary restrictions and bare-bones crew, tech/design elements are solid.

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Film Review: 'Happy 40th'

Reviewed online, San Francisco, June 8, 2015. (In Seattle Film Festival.) Running time: 100 MIN.

Production: A Madoka Raine production. Produced by Raine. Executive producers, Raine, Jeffrey Popma, Alexandra Popma, Marc Fiuczynski, Duane S. Pinto, Ana Mercurio-Pinto.

Crew: Directed, written by Madoka Raine. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), John Wakayama Carey; editor, Carey; art director, Jennifer Mills; sound, Steve Bucino, Pete Nenortas; assistant director, Laurika Harris-Kaye.

With: Yvonne Woods, Brian Slaten, Madoka Raine, Robyn Cohen, Jenni Blong.

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