“Another Happy Day,” a title laced in sarcasm, stars Ellen Barkin as a woman drenched in sorrow, barely able to staunch the tears. So if you’re in the mood for misery, you’ll love the company here.
A sister, mother, wife and ex-wife, Lynn (Barkin) belongs to a badly shattered family, the sort of nasty bunch that has enough money and time to make one another miserable. They’ve been brought back together for the wedding of Dylan, her estranged oldest son (Michael Nardelli). The other option, I guess, would have been a funeral. With an ailing, aged father (George Kennedy), it’s not out of the question.
It is a provocative if imperfect debut for writer-director Sam Levinson. He’s second-generation Hollywood, the son of Barry (“Rain Man,” “Good Morning, Vietnam,” etc., etc.), who seems to have no involvement in the project. But if this low-budget indie is any indication, the younger Levinson’s creative sensibilities appear to be darker than his dad’s, the voice clearly his own.
Levinson quickly sets about kicking through all the emotional debris of a house divided by its pain and its past. Lynn’s ex, Paul (Thomas Hayden Church), got custody of Dylan years ago in their bad breakup and raised him with his brassy, bitter new wife (Demi Moore, nearly spitting nails with every word she directs at Lynn). She took their troubled daughter Alice (Kate Bosworth), who cuts rather than cries and has built a new life that includes an overly steady (sedated?) husband, played by a glassy-eyed Jeffrey DeMunn, and two sons.
Though Barkin is the film’s damaged spine, the boys give the film most of its backbone. Elliot, played by the exceptional rising talent Ezra Miller, who costars with Tilda Swinton in the upcoming “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” is the older brother. Around 17 and just out of his latest stint in rehab, he has an intellect so keen and so unfiltered, his observations are able to bring just about anyone to their knees.
The film is more concerned with Lynn’s unresolved issues, but it’s Elliot’s moods, moves and mind games that keep things interesting.
His younger brother, Ben (Daniel Yelsky), is around 13, borderline autistic, borderline brilliant, and making a video record of everything that’s going on, allowing small, telling moments from this disastrous weekend that otherwise might have been lost to work their way into the film: Elliot spacing out on his grandfather’s drugs; Lynn’s sisters having a laugh at her expense; her mother (Ellen Burstyn) snapping at her insistent efforts to connect.
All the liaisons here are dangerous, and cinematographer Ivan Strasburg (“Bloody Sunday”) keeps the lens trained on the faces, capturing the characters at their most vulnerable and their most venal. The filmmaker handles some members of this classy cast better than others — he’s best with Elliot, less sure with his star. Her sadness overwhelms too many scenes, turning her lament into a whine.
Most of the conflicts will sound familiar — which mother, bio or step, will Dylan take down the aisle? Others feel contrived, like the therapy session Lynn orchestrates with her ex on the eve of the wedding. It helps that the dialogue is mostly as clever as it is caustic (it won Levinson the much-deserved top screenwriting award at the Sundance Film Festival this year). Still less would have been more — the film is nearly two hours and very much in need of a few strategic trims.
For all of difficulties, there is an authenticity in Levinson’s work that you can see in the film, and his is a compelling voice playing in that minor key. It makes you wonder what he’ll take on next, maybe a slightly happier day.