Looking for the Magic Kingdom? Not here. A comedy? Wrong theater.
The Happiest Place on Earth, the debut feature from Virginian filmmaker John Goshorn, doesn’t see elation in its universe; it takes everything that define the American Dream and consider them non-existent. Struggles thrive whenever and wherever possible in this picture as a result, a few of which also break the fourth wall due to their relatability in the current economy and lack of technical polish.
“The Happiest Place on Earth demonstrates a creative spark amid budgetary constraints.”
Charismatic couple Maggie (Jennifer Faith Ward) and Jonah Price (Tom Kemnitz Jr.) have just moved into a new home, enjoying the “white-picket fence” life described through voiceovers and detailed through children’s drawings in the opening titles. She teaches at the daycare, he designs the graphics for the local newspaper – hardly six-figure jobs, but enough to get by. That notion is challenged when Jonah is laid off, and Maggie’s efforts to pick up the slack by waiting tables can only cover some part of the bills. After a few bursts of frustration, Maggie suggests Jonah to take some downtime, never knowing that his camping trip will evolve into a missing person case.
With the mystery, the film sets itself up as a modern-day Aesop’s Fable, but the life lesson at the close is overshadowed by notes on how more tinkering could have benefitted the film. Inconsistent audio level and quality – too fuzzy, just right, switching between the two in one setting and highlighting its “added in post” status (especially ambient sounds that don’t change in volume or direction) – has the tendency to prompt the mind to think about a happy place. Whatever immersion the scenarios and performances have worked hard to construct tends to come undone in the end due to an ever-changing manner of capturing the soundscape: sometimes with a recorder, then a proper boom mic, maybe that time with an iPhone and a couple of times via stock.
Also drawing unwarranted attention are the transitions, which can either hop to an unnecessary new angle or awkwardly convey the passage of time. A clarification: These are observations on what transpires within one scene and not the story-in-story sequences where The Happiest Place on Earth demonstrates a creative spark amid budgetary constraints.
“Throughout the film, the irony in the title continually evokes Sam Mendes’ American Beauty…”
On the front-of-camera side, Ward and Kemnitz Jr. have sufficient presence and sensitivity to captivate viewers for 81 minutes. There is a neighborly appearance and demeanor to the couple that complement Goshorn’s documentary-esque style. Ward carries the film well, which is crucial in the latter half when Jonah is out of the frame, and introduces some needed emotional fluctuations to the frame. It’s easy to ramp up the dramatic factor being the central player in, and at the center of, different stressful-but-telegraphed scenarios that Goshorn has concocted (he also wrote the screenplay), but Ward thankfully approaches them with a restraint that sustains the film’s reflective-of-life veil. Still, The Happiest Place on Earth threatens to pierce it when Maggie meets an attorney, Evan Stirling (Marco DiGeorge), who constantly emphasizes that he won’t take advantage of her situation like the others.
Also equally constant is Gavin Salkeld’s muted score, whose Mark Isham-like conservatism bring forth the suburban/midtown blues without effort and manage to cover the audio flaws at times. This would have worked as a transition effect, too, fusing fluidity and evening out the pacing. Photography-wise, Jeffrey Gross’ contributions are adequate; the handheld style effectively reels us into the couple’s descent even if the shakiness can become a bit incessant and artificial.
The Happiest Place on Earth, though, doesn’t address a fantastical problem. What it revolves around, predictable they may be, is current, universal and omnipresent, to the most successful of us or otherwise. Throughout the film, the irony in the title continually evokes Sam Mendes’ American Beauty, arguably the best of the genre. Another clarification: This is not a comparison between an indie and a studio production; it’s just the former could have told a message with similar potency with a clearer sound and fewer hiccups in progression.
The Happiest Place on Earth (2015) Directed and Written by: John Goshorn. Starring: Jennifer Faith Ward, Tom Kemnitz Jr., Marco DiGeorge, Peg O’Keef, Chris Lindsay, Daniel Wachs.
6.5 out of 10