H is for Happiness

PG, 98 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

The advance media for this new film for young adults suggests it’s about a girl with a knack for persuading other people to her brightly coloured, optimistic view of the world.

It concerned me a bit. Would I meet a Pollyanna type, sunny to a fault? Well, I didn’t. Candice Phee, the main character played by Daisy Axon, is more nuanced and interesting than that.

Candice first appeared in Barry Jonsberg’s popular novel from which this film has been adapted, My Life as an Alphabet. It has been popular with YA readers around the world. I don’t know the book at all, but Daisy Axon, all red hair and freckles, makes a lovely Candice on screen.

Since the death of her younger sister, Candice has been the only child at home with her parents. It’s not exactly a broken home, but in a sense, it is, with Candice the ham-in-the-sandwich of family relations turned sour. She is just a bright and precocious 12 year-old who wants to set things right again.

Mum Claire (Emma Booth) is depressed and dad Jim (Richard Roxborough) is dejected and when they’re not brooding, they are arguing behind closed doors. In the four years since sister Sky died, mum Claire, once a lively country and western fan, has fallen into deep despond.

Jim can barely bring himself to talk to his brother, businessman Rich Uncle Brian (Joel Jackson) because he believes his sibling robbed him of the intellectual property he is owed on a deal they did together. When family is a mess, who wouldn’t try to set it right?

Yet everything Candice tries to get her parents to perk up and get on together falls flat, even cooking dinner and arranging surprise trips.

Overachiever Candice is a bit uncool among her classmates, and it’s another issue. Perhaps the amazing vocabulary she has at her disposal is annoying? She uses words like ‘pizzazz’, ‘breach’, ‘schism’, ‘whopping’, and ‘lack thereof’, and she pronounces the letter H as ‘aytch’, not ‘haytch’.

The next class assignment seems made-to-measure for Candice. Miss Bamford (Miriam Margolyes makes an unforgettable though very brief appearance) sets class the task of a presentation about a letter of the alphabet. Candice is assigned the letter ‘h’.

Thankfully, she has become besties with another strange kid at school, Douglas Benson from Another Dimension, the only kid who willingly sits next to her in class. As they explore a nearby pine forest, creaking and sighing in the wind, they can let their imaginations rip. Wesley Patten as Douglas is really good too.

A white miniature horse keeps them company. It’s no unicorn, and if not exactly magical, it could have drifted in from another world, perhaps the dimension that Douglas wants to revisit?

Douglas Benson from Another Dimension, has issues of his own but his kind mother, played by wonderful Deborah Mailman, has warmth and empathy to spare for Candice.

The film looks great. I loved the occasional symmetry of the framings. A richly imagined world thanks to art direction (Marita Mussett) production design (Nicki Gardiner) and the cinematography by Bonnie Elliott and Rick Rifici (Breath), all brought together by director John Sheedy who is highly regarded in the world of theatre and opera.

Although the book is set in Queensland, the film is set in the southernmost tip of Western Australia. Candice lives in Albany, but despite the endless stretch of perfect beach, could almost be anywhere.

There are scenes of Candice cycling past wind farms and spectacular coastline, but no particular effort has been made by the filmmakers to underline the fact that the film is set in Australia. The suburban gardens have as many exotics as they have bush plants, and it is stately pines that grow in a nearby forest. H is for Happiness has a sort of placelessness, and it is refreshing to see an Australian film that doesn’t feel the need to proclaim its cultural identity.

H is for Happiness is a first feature for theatre director John Sheedy, though he does have an award-winning short, Mrs McCutcheon, in his back pocket. He has brought a fresh YA angle to the Aussie coming-of-age comedy, and the entire production is a credit to everyone involved.

First published in the Canberra Times on 13 February 2020