Family discord reaches a crescendo for “Another Happy Day”; a review

Another Happy Day assembles one of the strongest casts that I can recall in recent years. Ellen Barkin, Ellen Burstyn, Demi Moore, Thomas Haden Church, George Kennedy, and Diana Scarwid are among the big names, and they share some stunning on-screen moments.

Maybe too many.

The cathartic film, which threatens at various points to become simply exhausting, was written and directed by the 26-year old Sam Levinson, the son of Barry Levinson – a pedigree that probably helped get the script in front of Barkin, who quickly came on board not only as star but as producer.

After Sunday evening’s screening of Another Happy Day at the Savannah Film Festival, Barkin was clear about the script’s attraction for her: “One of the last taboos in Hollywood is the misguided, real mother.”

And Barkin’s Lynn is certainly misguided, if generally well-meaning. Her obvious love for her emotionally troubled sons (more on them in a moment) spills over quickly into angry tirades, her worries about her daughter Alice’s (Kate Bosworth) self-mutilation only make things worse, her pent-up anger at her mother (Burstyn) and her ex Paul (Haden Church) seems too close to the surface with so many years gone by, especially considering the severe illness faced by her father (the 86-year old Kennedy in a beautifully circumscribed performance).
Time to get a grip, Lynn – that’s what I wanted to say to her over and over again.

But I still liked Lynn, especially when she stood up to the abrasiveness of her ex’s new wife (Moore) who tried to undermine the fragile connections between Lynn and her son Dylan, played by the attractive Michael Nardelli in a role that slips too easily to the background. (Asked about the casting process, Levinson fixed first on Moore for that role since “she could possibly kick the shit out of Ellen Barkin.”)

Lynn and the rest of her family have all gathered for Dylan’s wedding to . . . what was her name again? Dylan’s fiancé (Laura Coover) gets lost in the film, and some of the rest of the family – including Scarwid and Siobhan Fallon as Lynn’s sisters – are reduced at times almost to caricatures, which is particularly regrettable in such a serious film where actors are so often allowed to explore their characters with such depth.

Burstyn has some predictably fine moments as the restrained, worried matriarch, and Jeffrey DeMunn provides grounded comic relief as Lynn’s husband, who arrives a little too late to the pre-wedding strife – and to the movie itself. As the ex-husband hoping to win points against Lynn and at the same time reconnect with his estranged daughter, Thomas Haden Church’s false stoicism is pitch perfect, but too often he is simply unlikable – the same problem I had with almost all the cast.

Still, the sheer virtuosity of the performances and Levinson’s smart dialogue prevent the film from ever getting dull. The director trusts his characters in long takes where timing and emotion have to be perfect – and they often are.

For all the star power, the emotional tenor of Another Happy Day is largely set by the two young actors – both new to me – who play Lynn’s sons.

The 14-year old Daniel Yelsky is vulnerable and funny as the Aspergers-diagnosed Ben.

And the 18-year old Ezra Miller (presumably 17 when the film was shot) is simply a revelation as the emotionally disturbed addict Elliot, who becomes the film’s moral center. He more than holds his own in scenes with Barkin and Burstyn. His comic timing, his perfectly controlled movements, his magnetic looks, his penetrating voice – he’s a young actor with all the tools to forge a great career. Let’s hope Miller fares better than Elliot likely will in negotiating the obvious pitfalls ahead.

Ezra Miller will be in another film at the Savannah Film Festival – We Need to Talk about Kevin on Tuesday. I’ll definitely be there.

After making its way to a number of festivals, Another Happy Day will be released in Los Angeles and New York on November 18th. It deserves to be seen, and I have no doubt that Levinson has more films in him – both as a writer and a director. Maybe his future efforts will be marked by a little more emotional restraint, a little more control – qualities that could be the difference between an admirable film and a great one.