Opening in a therapy workshop for those who have facial disfigurements, Happy Face introduces us to each to each character as they introduce themselves: Otis (David Roche), an elderly man born with vascular malformation who struggles to connect with his stepdaughter; Jocko (E.R. Ruiz), a former police officer whose left side is scarred due to the flames of a car-crash whilst on duty; Buck (Cyndy Nicholsen), a woman with incurable warts on her face which has resulted in a difficult relationship with her mother; and Maggie (Alison Midstokke), an aspiring model who was born with Treacher Collins Syndrome.
The sessions are led by trained therapist Vanessa (Debbie Lynch-White) whose ability to empathize with the group comes from her own insecurity regarding her weight and appearance. “I’m a second class citizen” she says. We are also introduced to Augustin whose disfigured face sits behind bandages that are crossed over his face. Vanessa sends the group away with the task of talking to a stranger and identifying their negative thoughts.
As it would happen, Augustin is faking his disfigurement. His real name is Stan (Robin L’Houmeau), a 19-year-old who created his facial disfigurement with cello-tape. We learn that Stan’s mother, Augustine (Noémie Kocher), has lost a breast due to breast cancer and their relationship with one another is strained. When her cancer comes back, it affects both her brain and jaw, requiring major surgery. Due to this, Stan joins the group to prepare himself because he doesn’t think he’ll be able to look at his mother’s new face post-surgery.
After finding out Stan is a fraud, the others decide to let him stay as he clearly has his own problems. Instead of using the psychology-based techniques, Stan believes everyone would benefit from more unconventional methods – such as learning how to stand up for themselves. Stan aims to break everyone so they get over the fear of being broken (this technique is known as flooding). While his intentions are good, exploring unconventional treatment types in a film can be tricky. It doesn’t always work, but it seems to have more positives than negatives in Happy Face.
The 90s setting of the film seems to serve no purpose, apart from towards the end when Vanessa gets set up online. She’s told that people will listen to what she has to say as no one is judged for their appearance, race or religion – the internet provides us with anonymity should we choose it. It’s a shame that, over time, beauty standards have managed to infect the internet due to the prevalence of social media. But let’s not tell Vanessa that.
Happy Face is a very personal film for director Alexandre Franchi, which he co-wrote with Joelle Bourjolly. Franchi grew up in a position similar to Stan’s – watching his mother lose herself and her beauty to breast cancer. He noticed how differently people looked at his mother and he was disgusted with their disgust and ashamed of his own mother. When Franchi was diagnosed with bone cancer eight years ago, it brought back all the horrible memories, propelling him to make this film. He has stated that films labeled under “diversity and inclusion” usually portray their protagonists as victims or angels, but Franchi wanted to show his facially disfigured actors as themselves, as well as helping people become less shallow.
The casting of actual facially disfigured actors is a remarkable step forward, especially as most of them had never acted before. This, alongside the film’s plot, provides insight into a perspective that we rarely get to see both in cinema and real life. The film definitely succeeds in portraying these characters as real, flawed human beings, which aren’t too far from their real counterparts. Happy Face reminds us of society’s obsession with beauty. It’s a film about people learning that the problem isn’t with themselves, but with the world around them.