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DVD Review: Happiness Runs

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Happiness Runs is a family film by Adam Sherman, but you won’t be seeing it on The Hallmark Channel. The unassuming title lends itself to the plight of a teenager attempting to escape what he views as the all-too-liberal practices of the polygamist commune he lives in.

The tone of the film is immediately set in the opening scenes (which starts off like a documentary, complete with narration about the future of the polygamist subculture) with stock footage of the decadent hippie-like lifestyle: free love, living off the land, dancing naked, drinking moonshine, smoking marijuana, and being under the influence of psychedelic drugs. Obviously moonshine is associated with the backwoods type, but I suppose hippies made and drank it, too.

The protagonist, Victor, played by Mark L. Young, first emerges onscreen in his own dream of waking up in a hollow, burned up, and smoking fallen tree. He crawls out, covered in soot, and walks half-naked (the upper half) through an equally charred forest. The audience then sees a close-up shot of a beautiful girl with long wispy hair, and she speaks of the failures of the communal family.

In Victor’s mind, the family is like the fallen tree: empty and smoldering.
The girl in his dreams, Becky, played by Hanna Hall (The Virgin Suicides, Rob Zombie’s Halloween) returns, in reality, to the family after failing her classes because of having to care for her cancer-stricken father. Coupled with his dream, Victor takes her return as a sign that the two should escape the commune together.

Andie MacDowell and Mark Boone Junior (Seven) play Victor’s judgmental, brainwashed parents, initiated by the commune’s spiritual leader, Insley, portrayed by Rutger Hauer. And we have Jake, the hippie drug dealer, returning to set up shop and get rich off the escapist tendencies of the members of the commune by underselling the commune’s current drug dealer.

The film has a fairly simple plot, but Victor’s plan of escape and salvation from the cult-like spirituality of the commune, Becky’s desire for self-destruction through sex, drugs, and alcohol, the growing materialism and jealousy within the family, and Jake’s power struggle with the current drug dealer keep the audience interested. The fact that the film is based on a true story makes it all the more intriguing.

The most impressive aspect of the film’s cinematography lies within the dream sequences. The washed out landscape and the appearance of almost fluorescent lighting stimulates the senses and creates a genuinely uneasy feeling about the drama unfolding in the family.
The special features are sparse, with only the film’s theatrical trailer. A film like this would truly benefit from an audio commentary by the director.

By the end of the film you’re left to wonder what the real demon is: the polygamist path to unfettered enlightenment or the trappings of mainstream society.

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