When I first heard about little Australian dramedy H Is for Happiness, I was all in. An offbeat look at an unconventional tween girl? Yes, please. And for the first few minutes of the film, I was onboard. Twelve-year-old Candice (Daisy Axon) is a little bit Hermione Granger, a little bit me (many years ago): the brainy, bookish, know-it-all girl who is always the first with her hand up in class to correct teachers when they’re wrong. (Smartypants girls are so underrepresented onscreen. I can’t imagine why. *eyeroll*) It’s also really lovely to see a portrait of a tween girl who is still more child than adolescent, especially now, when little girls are invariably oversexualized. Be-pigtailed Candice and her earnest desire to help others is a sharp contrast to her self-centered, growing-up-too-quick classmates, her age peers wearing makeup and short skirts and performative disaffection. Not that Candice doesn’t worry about when the heck her boobs will start growing. But even that comes, in this feature debut of both director John Sheedy and screenwriter Lisa Hoppe, with a charming wholesomeness.
Alas, none of that was enough, and H lost me quickly. It’s all over the place, sometimes detouring into the cringeworthy (the finale — oy!), as it tries to depict the emotional familial confusion Candice is navigating. But that’s a tough square to circle, and H doesn’t manage it, resorting to candy-colored production design to avoid getting too grim about harsh realities, which often falls, ironically, flat. Candice’s mom (Emma Booth: Hounds of Love, Gods of Egypt) is very sad — chronically depressed, even — after the loss of Candice’s little sister as an infant. (Dead babies are such great fodder for middle-school dramedies!) Her dad (Richard Roxburgh: Sanctum 3D, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole), is mired in an ongoing feud with his brother, “Rich Uncle Brian” (Joel Jackson), over a patent issue; both men are tech entrepreneurs; or wannabe, in Dad’s case. Yes, Candice invariably calls him, even to his face, “Rich Uncle Brian,” and yes, I flinched every time she did so. (I’m also raging against this, though it’s hardly a sin original to this movie: Why is Dad literally, actually 20 years older than Mom? This is honestly starting to be a dealbreaker for me.)
But wait, there’s more! The labored idiosyncrasy of H crops up again in Candice’s relationship with her new friend, Douglas Benson from Another Dimension (Wesley Patten), a kid who insists he has traveled from an alt-reality but actually *checks notes* seems to be suffering the lingering aftereffects of a traumatic brain injury. I… just… *sob* *massive sigh of disappointment*
Look. This could theoretically, work. Pain and the peculiarity it can inspire have long been bedfellows in fiction. But Candice’s relentless cheer — with the added, and always tedious, kiddie humor of poop and puke jokes — never adds up to an effective counter to the sadness of her life, and the tragedy of the world. I wish it did, because I would have loved to embrace that right now.