“The Happy Sad“ is one of the most satisfying films to come in a very long time. The elevator pitch for this film, in the words of director Rodney Evans, is quite simple: “It’s about two couples in open relationships and it tracks how their lives intertwine and collide. It’s about a Black gay couple and a White straight, couple and how their paths collide and we follow the juxtaposition of their experiences.”
It is that intertwining and juxtaposition that is the real beauty of this film. Ken Urban adapted the story for the screen from a play he wrote. He deserves the main credit for writing characters with incredible authenticity, sensitivity and intelligence. He is also brave for not shying away from sometimes putting his characters in cringe inducing situations. Most importantly, he rubs our faces in two ugly truths: dating can be a complicated territory filled with land mines and “open relationships” sounds alluring but can be a brutal experience without negotiated rules and agreements.
Marcus (Leroy McClain) and Aaron (Charlie Barnett), after a happy and committed six years, decide to open their relationship with one important rule: not to fall in love with anyone else. Annie (Sorel Carradine) and Stan (Cameron Scoggins) have been seeing each other for six months when Annie indicates that she wants some time away from the relationship. Stan immediately jumps to conclusions, ends the conversation abruptly, and assumes their relationship is over. Annie doesn’t even get a chance to present her idea of an open relationship. We learn that she is interested in a co-worker Mandy (Maria Dizzia). On the rebound and sexually curious, Stan surfs online sites and hooks up with Marcus.
What follows is happy and sad and a thousand emotions in between. There are poignant, gut-wrenching scenes between Marcus and Aaron as they struggle with the boundaries of their new arrangement. There are awkward conversations between Annie and Stan as they learn secrets about each other. There are warm and liberating moments between Annie and Mandy. Director Rodney Evans has a masterful command over the material and his actors. He is best known for his 2004 feature film, and labor of love, “Brother to Brother“, a drama that looks back on the Harlem Renaissance from the perspective of an elderly, black writer who meets a gay teenager in a New York homeless shelter. If he is not a household name among queer audiences, he should be. He is a magician who makes beautiful art out of very little resources. “The Happy Sad” was filmed in 16 days on a shoestring budget but this small film packs a megaton of visceral emotional punch.
Another miracle of this film is the actors. The two lead couples give finely calibrated performances and they even manage to make a couple of clumsy scenes real and believable. Equally mesmerizing is Maria Dizzia as Mandy. Her face flickers with hope one moment and complete despair the next as she breathes life into what could have been a caricature in the hands of a lesser actor. Michael Nathanson is hilarious in a two-scene role as one of the men that Annie tries to date. These are actors of excellent pedigree. Sorel Carradine comes from the Carradine family of actors and filmmakers. McClain, Barnett, Dizzia, Nathanson, and Carradine have a long list of theater and television credits to their name. They should all be proud of their work in this film.
“The Happy Sad” is by no means a perfect film. It deals with aspects of human relationships that can be messy and awkward. One is supposed to feel more than a bit uncomfortable watching this film. But Urban, Evans and their team of actors make ugliness and indignity look like a bouquet of flowers. “The Happy Sad” is currently making the film festival circuit or in a limited release at your local art-house theater. Don’t miss it!