More often than not, “A” festival competitions privilege the arty over the entertaining, so hats off to the Berlinale Generation section, where the two qualities frequently coexist. A case in point: the delightful coming-of-age dramedy “H Is for Happiness,” which provides feel-good entertainment for the entire family without pandering — and definitely without sacrificing style or substance. In his feature helming debut, Aussie theater director John Sheedy proves a talent to watch. Imagine a cross between John Hughes and Wes Anderson with a soupçon of Pedro Almodóvar, and you get an idea of the film’s playful stylization and witty direction. Other strong selling points include the source material, a prize-winning young adult novel (published in the U.S. as “The Categorical Universe of Candice Phee”), stellar performances from a talented youth cast and top-notch production work. Above all, “Happiness” is a heck of a lot of fun.
Shot on location in the timeless-looking Western Australia coastal town of Albany, the story provides a fresh exploration of universal themes such as dysfunctional families, friendship, loss, grief and acceptance of difference. It unfolds through the eyes of red-haired, freckle-faced, 12-year-old Candice Phee (phenomenal newcomer Daisy Axon), a smart, perky seventh grader whose perpetually cheery mien belies her unhappy home life and lack of peer friends. The members of her class have been assigned to recount their lives according to the letters of the alphabet, something that Candice, whose favorite reading material is the dictionary, is well suited for.
Candice represents a different sort of heroine. She’s a very literal sort of girl, the type of student who takes issue with every imprecise statement, no matter who makes it, and whose too-frequently raised hand elicits groans from her classmates. To be honest, she’s the kind of person who inspires a lot of eye-rolling, and not only from her homeroom teacher, Miss Bamford (the great Miriam Margolyes in top comic form). Her social awkwardness and need to arrange her colored gel pens just so make some people think that she’s on the autism spectrum, but that doesn’t bother Candice. She just continues to be herself: a fountain of offbeat information and not always successful bright ideas. She also has the oddly endearing habit of calling people by their full names or their names and modifying characteristics — e.g., Rich Uncle Brian or Douglas Benson From Another Dimension.
Candice’s central preoccupation is how to make her family happy again. Her parents are still grief-stricken over the death of her baby sister a few years back. Her once-active, full-of-beans mother (Emma Booth) now rarely gets out of bed, and her financially struggling father (Richard Roxburgh) can’t deal with his wife’s depression or his precocious daughter. He takes refuge in the basement, shutting out the world as he works on his computer. To make matters worse, he and his younger brother — that would be Rich Uncle Brian (Joel Jackson) — are estranged over their previously shared business.
Just as things at home seem to be sliding further downhill, Candice’s personal life takes a turn for the better when she hits it off with another outsider, Douglas Benson (the adorable Wesley Patten), a new boy at school. Due to a prior head injury, Douglas believes that he comes from another dimension. Like Candice, he boasts a preternaturally large vocabulary and is a math and engineering whiz to boot. These skills will later help Candice’s father to career success and enliven the film’s hoot of a musical finale, lip-synced to Dolly Parton’s “Islands in the Stream.”
The charming screenplay by producer Lisa Hoppe is full of diverting ups and downs, candid moments and rueful epiphanies, for which helmer Sheedy hits all the right notes. His direction enables even the smallest supporting roles to register, from Candice’s mean-girl classmate Jen Marshall (Alessandra Tognini) to the terrifying substitute teacher to the costume-store proprietor and the sweetly flummoxed waitress at the diner where Candice instigates yet another unwelcome reunion of her father and Rich Uncle Brian.
In a film bursting with cheerful primary colors, kudos are due to production designer Nicki Gardner and costume designer Terri Lamera, who render palpable three different environments: the sad, shadowy atmosphere of Candice’s home, the bright and bustling milieu of school and town, and the magical forest where miniature horses appear out of nowhere and Douglas Benson climbs the tallest trees. Also of note is the twinkling sound design, interspersed with country and western songs. Whatever they had to pay for the rights to the Dolly Parton number, it was worth it.