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The Happy Sad | 2013 Outfest Review

A Many Splendored Thing: Evans’ Sophomore Feature Candidly Explores the Nebulous Nature of Desire

The Happy Sad PosterIt’s been nearly a decade since director Rodney Evans debuted his tenderly recuperative Brother to Brother (2004), though his resulting sophomore effort, an adaptation of Ken Urban’s stage play The Happy Sad, has been well worth the wait. A realistic exploration of the pressures and expectations of modern day relationships depicted through the main intermingling of two couples, one black and gay, the other white and heterosexual, there are perhaps one too many coincidental encounters upon which the furthering of the narrative depends (especially considering this is NYC). Nevertheless, you’ll be hard pressed to find a film that takes such care to explore the difficult issues of love, desire, and sexual fulfillment (as hurdles that every relationship must address) as equally well as it delivers engaging characters. In a world obsessed with labels and the idolatry of tradition, Evans’ film is one of the rare examples depicting people that exist in a recognizable environment, each struggling, as we all do, to achieve that tenuous idea we perceive to be happiness, and the sadness that must accompany in order to appreciate it.

Marcus (Leroy McClain) and Aaron (Charlie Barnett) have been happily partnered for the past six years, but recently have decided to explore opening their relationship in order to have sexual interactions separately with others. They try to develop a list of rules, but basically decide that their one main rule will be not to fall in love with anyone else. Obviously, this may be easier said than done depending on what kind of fulfillment is being sought through sexual interaction. Meanwhile, Annie (Sorel Carradine), an elementary schoolteacher, has just decided to end her relationship to her younger boyfriend, Stan (Cameron Scoggins) over lunch at the restaurant where Aaron waits tables. She claims she has fallen in love with her co-worker, Mandy (Maria Dizzia), which we learn is a fib, but also an unfulfilled fantasy that could be easily initiated.

As Annie explores a flirtation with Mandy, who is currently in the midst of a consuming familial crisis, Stan begins to expand his own sexual orientation through a random hookup with none other than Marcus. However, it’s immediately apparent that Stan and Marcus share more than obvious sexual gratifications, and Marcus finds himself drawn to Stan in ways that soon become noticeable to Aaron. Alarmed, Aaron begins snooping through Marcus’ emails which soon has the opposite effect of what their open relationship was supposed to enhance. Stan finds the thought of being with Annie still alluring, who, through a random introduction of all those involved in this small web of entanglements, is intrigued to discover Stan’s new found curiosities. Their experiences make each of them question what it is exactly that they’re seeking.

The Happy Sad is the oxymoron that describes every relationship, for we cannot give someone the power to make us happy without conversely becoming vulnerable to them also making us sad. And so, of course, our significant others walk a fine line between causing us pleasure or pain. Such serious contemplation takes great effort to present believably, and Evans does a fine job of adapting a series of conversations for the screen. A nice touch is the inclusion of live performances Cameron Scoggin’s real life band The Whiskey Collective, which lends a sort of folksy melancholy to the soundtrack.

The main cast members are vivacious, even exemplary in their performances. We’re easily able to believe the predicaments of Marcus and Aaron, and their endearing and expressive conversations are brought to life from the naturalistic performances of McClain and Barnett. Even if Carradine seems a bit hyper expressive in her earlier sequences, she fits well into the rhythm of exploration the film develops. While some melodrama ensues, this isn’t a narrative driven by soapy schmaltz, but is told with a vibrant and exciting urgency about expressing the healthy urge for change, growth, and embracing fleeting pleasures.

Explorations of monogamy within both a heterosexual and homosexual framework are not infrequent cinematic subjects, though, more often than not, they are often accompanied with significant sides of guilt and shame (especially for the former unions, with recent examples like Katie Aselton’s The Freebie seriously, if not quite satisfactorily, depicting one couple’s sexual experience outside the confines of their relationship).

Recent winds of change have finally given many LGBT couples equal opportunity to have their relationships legally recognized, which makes something like The Happy Sad even more relevant as we move forward, careful not to mirror the mistakes of the heteronormative and, as the couples in this film do, instead forge our own paths toward personal and sexual fulfillment regardless of whatever standard norms dictate. Rodney Evans brings us to a brave new world where adults interact, communicate, explore, and, most importantly, recognize the importance of fulfillment and forgiveness.

Reviewed on July 20 at the 2013 Outfest Film Festival.

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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