H is for Happiness feels like a rare film. It’s so genuine and tender with its comedy and humanity that it can’t help but feel like an anomaly in the landscape of cinema. Sure, this is a kids film, but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone of any age not rolling in the aisles with laughter. From the very first frame to its uproarious conclusion, H is for Happiness is so assured and confident with what it wants to be, managing to execute its intentions perfectly, that it can’t help but be an immediate modern Australian classic.
This is the story of Candice Phee (Daisy Axon) and her understandably detached parents, Jim (Richard Roxburgh) and Claire (Emma Booth). Candice is an optimistically precise girl, brimming with confidence and comfortable weirdness, so assured with who she is, she can’t help but become the ire of the school bullies. Candice sits at the front of the classroom by herself, with her pens all lined up perfectly, and when a new classmate arrives, she embraces him completely. The new kid is Douglas Benson (Wesley Patten), who purports to be from ‘another dimension’, and when Candice hears this news, she doesn’t reject him for being an odd pear, but instead dons him with the name of ‘Douglas Benson from Another Dimension’.
As Candice and Douglas’ friendship flourishes, Candice attempts to mend the broken hearts of her parents who are still mourning the loss of their second child, all the while attempting to reunite Jim with his estranged brother, Rich Uncle Brian (Joel Jackson). Meanwhile, Douglas believes that he knows the way to getting back to his own dimension, and sets about doing so by jumping off high branches in trees. It’s clear that Candice has her hands full with endlessly spinning plates, but she tackles every challenge with gusto and with an open heart.
Daisy Axon’s performance as Candice is one that’s full of wide eyed optimism and hope. To carry a film completely is a difficult task for any actor, but Daisy approaches her role as Candice so earnestly and with such ease that you can’t help but get swept up with her antics. Candice is such a confident and assured character that you can easily plot the line from Miles Franklin’s equally confident and assured Sybylla Melvyn in My Brilliant Career to her. These are aspirational characters, not just for women and girls, but for kids and adults who are a little bit different compared to everyone else.
I couldn’t help but watch H is for Happiness with the wish that this film existed for me as a kid. I saw so much of me in Candice and Douglas that I can only imagine how many other kids out there will see the same thing. There’s a respect and adoration for the ‘odd kids’ amongst us, with both Candice and Douglas’ quirks being celebrated rather than beaten down. It’s not like Candice and Douglas don’t know that they’re a little different than other kids. Candice is well and truly aware that Douglas’ intentions to jump into another dimension are foolish, but instead of telling him that, she is there to support him and to ensure that he stays safe.
There is so much going on within H is for Happiness, with everything from a Mad Eye Mooney-esque teacher played by the ever joyous Miriam Margolyes, to a wild miniature horse that becomes an unlikely companion, to the core narrative thread about the school class having to write a story about their life following the alphabet (hence the title), but it never feels scattered or unfocused. Instead, thanks to the assured direction from John Sheedy, the glorious writing from Lisa Hoppe (adapting Barry Jonsberg’s much loved young adult novel, My Life as an Alphabet), the exceptional production design from Nicki Gardiner that helps foster the harmony that is in the art direction by Marita Mussett, and the costume design from Terri Lamera, which is all captured by the brilliant cinematography from Bonnie Elliott, it feels like a well-tuned orchestra playing in perfect harmony. Everything sings and soars, with an honest desire to entertain as the core focus, making this a stunningly entertaining film.
Sure, there are dark moments here and there, as is the case with most kids films. But, it’s those darker moments that help elevate the honesty of the film. This is not a burdensome darkness either, but one that feels true to life, and just like grief and depression, these are elements of families that are only a part of the whole. You can’t have the light without the dark, and kids are more conscious of this than us adults of the world seem to give them credit for.
If there is any justice in the world, then H is for Happiness will be a massive success when it comes out. It’s such a beautifully pure film, so full of happiness, hope, inspiration, love, tenderness, empathy, and compassion, that I truly hope that everyone sees this film. H is for Happiness will make you feel better about life, it will fill you full of optimism, it will brighten your day, and will give you enough memories to cherish and hold onto so you can reflect on them and bring a bit of warmth to those other darker days that we all have.
I can say with complete certainty that I have not smiled this hard after a film in a very long time. As the credits rolled, I wiped away tears of joy from my eyes, my cheeks hurt from the obnoxious grin on my face. I had just witnessed one of the most purely joyful films that Australia has ever been fortunate to see, and I couldn’t wait to tell people all about H is for Happiness. I love this film. I adore it completely. This will be an all-time classic.
Director: John Sheedy
Cast: Daisy Axon, Wesley Patten, Miriam Margolyes
Writer: Lisa Hoppe, (based on the book My Life as an Alphabet, by Barry Jonsberg)