Synopsis: A year after her divorce, Helen Carpenter signs up for a wilderness survival course. Through this experience, she discovers you must get lost to find yourself.
Stars: Ellie Kemper, Luke Grimes, Nico Santos, Blythe Danner, Ben Cook, Shayvawn Webster, Esteban Benito, Gus Birney, Julia Shiplett
Director: Vicky Wight
Running Length: 103 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: Like some wild forest creature, I’m a person that lives by instinct and is guided by my sense of smell. If my gut tells me to walk confidently into a dark room and avoid the more inviting lighted pathway, I’ll do it. I’ll dodge places, people, and situations that give off a strange smell. Basically, I’m a walking sniff test. I can detect the good, the bad, and all the fakery in between. Passing the sniff test doesn’t need to apply to that jug of milk hiding at the back of your refrigerator or the fickle frenemy you can’t shake; it can also apply to what movies are out there for you to watch.
Take a movie like Happiness for Beginners, which gives off the pungent aroma of a well-worn cable knit sweater just your size. It’s warm and inviting, goes with anything, and will keep nicely for years. While it may not look like much when you first see it and probably not your preferred style, once you get close and breathe in its simple folksy notes, you’re hard-pressed to want to throw it in the hamper immediately.
You’re now picturing me as some animated cartoon floating over the forest, swooning over this Ellie Kemper-led dramedy on Netflix, right?
OK, in all sincerity, Happiness for Beginners is simply a perfect example of a middle-of-the-road Netflix-acquired film that works because of its willingness to focus on the heart of the characters it follows rather than their flaws. It would be easy to take this adaptation of Katherine Center’s novel and exploit for laughs the tale of a recently divorced woman’s journey into the wilderness on a group hike for all the Eat, Pray, Camp comedy director/screenwriter Vicky Wight could mine. Yet comedy is often put on the back burner for moments of bonding in unexpectedly touching ways, opening the hikers (and viewers) to honest discoveries.
Signing up for a trek into the Connecticut wilds is a giant leap for Helen Carpenter (Kemper, Home Sweet Home Alone) because her life is pre-planned. Still adjusting to her divorce, she’s taking this time away from her life (including her younger brother Duncan, Alexander Koch) to regroup, and after a stop at her grandma’s (a too-brief cameo by Blythe Danner, I’ll See You in My Dreams) she meets up with her group. Led by wired forest guide Beckett (Ben Cook, West Side Story), the troupe is a typically motley assortment of diverse personalities that would/could only be assembled in a movie.
Among them are the actor (an uproariously dry Nico Santos, Crazy Rich Asians) working on his craft, the chatty millennial (Julia Shiplett) using this as a not-so-silent retreat, an athletic alpha male (Esteban Benito, Brittany Runs a Marathon), an eternally optimistic psychologist Shayvawn Webster, and a zoned-out kook (Gus Birney) attempting to overcome trauma against “wood.” They’re also joined by Jake (Luke Grimes, The Magnificent Seven), a childhood friend of Duncan’s who may or may not have signed up to be close to Helen at the last minute. As they descend into the beautiful backwoods (the film is genuinely a postcard for tourism of the state – kudos to cinematographer Daniel Vecchione), they’ll face challenges, both physical and emotional.
While you could likely predict how Happiness for Beginners will evolve, I was surprised at how well-paced this expedition was. What you’d think would be the climax arrives at a unique point, and Wight makes good use of the remaining time to fill in details that keep us interested. There were moments when I wondered if the movie would have worked better with two A-Listers instead of Kemper and Grimes, but both made strong cases for themselves by the time the credits rolled. Kemper is a gifted comic but has something special going for herself as a subdued dramatic actress. It’s nice to see that develop here, and working with Grimes brings out good moments for both.
Bound to be one of those Netflix watches you fire up on a sleepy Sunday and wrap up when you’ve downed your second cup of coffee, Happiness for Beginners should signal the start of a new phase in Kemper’s more serious stage. She wouldn’t have to lose what gave her a start, but there are decent dramatic chops to work with. They play a significant role in enjoying what is ultimately easy-to-take entertainment that offers a pleasant return on your investment.