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‘All Happy Families’ seeks a cure for dysfunction

“All Happy Families” (a.k.a. “One of Those Days”) (2023). Cast: Josh Radnor, Rob Huebel, Becky Ann Baker, John Ashton, Chandra Russell, Colleen Camp, David Pasquesi, Ivy O’Brien, Natalija Nogulich, Antoine McKay, Cassie Kramer, Eliza Shin, Luigi Sottile, Lena Drake, Liz Cardenas, Rodney Crowell. Director: Haroula Rose. Screenplay: Coburn Goss and Haroula Rose. Web site. Film Clip.

An old saying maintains that we can pick our friends but not our family. But is that really so? It might seem that way at times, especially in situations where we struggle mightily to get along with them and put up with their annoyances and quirks. However, one could also contend that the individuals we incarnate with are present in our lives to help us learn valuable lessons in areas like cooperation and forgiveness. Admittedly, those often aren’t easy undertakings, but how else might we address these issues if by not being put through tests like these? Under such circumstances, we might simply have to just sit back and do our best to work our way through them, devising solutions that ultimately get us the wisdom we seek – and need. And that’s the point behind the multilayered story served up in the excellent new indie comedy-drama, “All Happy Families.”

As the film begins, viewers are greeted by the opening line from Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1878), an observation that sets the overall tone for the picture: “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” And, when it comes to the dysfunctional family portrayed here, that’s certainly the case – and in multiple ways at that. However, if one were to follow the author’s logic – that family happiness stems from everyone being alike, working together harmoniously and on the same page rather than at odds with one another – the potential for circumstances being very different is definitely there. The question is, can unhappy family members make the effort to bring this about? That’s the underlying theme that runs through this picture.

So who are the unhappy souls depicted in this story? They’re the members of the Landry family of Chicago, all of whom are “unsettled” in their own respective ways, fittingly reflecting the sentiment expressed in Tolstoy’s famous quote, both individually and collectively. And, together, they make for quite a patchwork of eccentrics.

  • Out-of-work actor Graham Landry (Josh Radnor) has been unemployed for quite some time, and the few callbacks he receives generally don’t go well. To make up for this, he spends more of his time working on writing projects, a skill at which he appears fairly adept, even though it’s not really what he wants to be doing. When not writing (or lazing about), he tries to work up the energy to renovate the first-floor rental apartment of the two-flat in which he grew up and continues to live. But Graham isn’t especially handy, and both the unit and the building overall need quite a bit of work, as he finds out from Phil (Antoine McKay), a genial plumber who does his best to deliver the bad news (and helpful advice) in as affable a manner as possible. However, that’s small comfort considering the mounting expenses that Graham now faces.
Brothers Graham and Will Landry (Josh Radnor, right, and Rob Huebel, left) become unexpected housemates in the Chicago two-flat where they grew up when circumstances in their lives take challenging turns, as seen in writer-director Haroula Rose’s second feature outing, “All Happy Families.” Photo courtesy of All Happy Families.
  • As Graham tries to sort out his challenges, he receives an unexpected visit from a surprise house guest – his brother Will (Rob Huebel), a television actor who has been considerably more successful at his craft than Graham has been. But his arrival is not particularly welcome; Will has returned to Chicago from Los Angeles in an attempt to escape the fallout of an on-set scandal in which he finds himself squarely at the center. Graham reluctantly offers him a place to hide out in exchange for help with the building renovation, but getting his brother to live up to his promise is nearly impossible with all of the burgeoning chaos that has followed him. Not only does the pandemonium involve the aforementioned scandal, but it also includes issues involving his teenage daughter, Evie (Ivy O’Brien), who makes an unscheduled appearance of her own on Graham’s doorstep. It’s been suggested that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but, as Will quickly finds out, there’s definitely truth in another old adage that maintains “when it rains, it pours.”
  • The household gets even more crowded when the brothers’ parents pay a visit to assist with the renovation, a gesture borne out of apparently good intentions but one that makes for more unexpected complications. The boys’ mother, Sue (Becky Ann Baker), has recently retired from her job and has plenty of time on her hands to help out. By contrast, their father, Roy (John Ashton), has to be coaxed into joining in the project for reasons that aren’t entirely clear but that apparently carry undisclosed secrets. Needless to say, these circumstances have prompted some tension between mom and dad. Sue is concerned about what Roy is hiding, and she’s become weary of the growing sense of complacency that he’s begun to exhibit. What’s more, Sue is wrestling with an issue of her own that arose at her retirement party at which her longtime boss, Jerry (David Pasquesi), made a highly inappropriate sexual advance toward her. Talk about a full plate.
  • And, if all of this weren’t enough, Graham is in for yet another surprise when his first prospective tenant shows up to look at the apartment – and it turns out to be his old college flame, Dana (Chandra Russell), whom he hasn’t seen in years. Like Graham, her acting career didn’t pan out as hoped for, so she changed paths and decided to become a chef, a profession in which she’s still trying to establish herself. But, despite the passage of time, some of the old feelings between the two are nevertheless present, a development that throws Graham for a loop. He’s not quite sure how he wants to proceed, yet he invariably manages to mess up whenever he tries to impress her, particularly when it comes to showing off his innately woeful handyman skills. It seems he’s all thumbs when it comes to things other than his acting career.

These scenarios are quite a lot to handle by themselves, but, as the film unfolds, they often become intertwined with one another as well. What’s more, other figures become caught up in the fray, too, adding more ingredients to an already-jumbled recipe for disaster, including those contributed by Jerry’s wife, Maureen (Cassie Kramer); Evie’s mom, Claudia (Liz Cardenas); Dana’s boss, Aaron (Luigi Sottile); Sue’s former co-worker, Connie (Eliza Shin); a country music singer (Rodney Crowell); and a neighborhood bartender, LeAnn (Lena Drake). And, serving as a sort of de facto narrative commentator, there’s Olga (Natalija Nogulich), Graham’s nosy Eastern European next-door neighbor, who conveniently chimes in with her own brand of pointed but valuable insights just when they’re needed most.

When out-of-work actor and reluctant landlord Graham Landry (Josh Radnor, right) unexpectedly reunites with his old college flame and a prospective tenant, Dana (Chandra Russell, left), he clumsily struggles to sort out where their future might head in writer-director Haroula Rose’s second feature outing, “All Happy Families.” Photo courtesy of MUBI/All Happy Families.

To detail how matters play out would reveal too much, but, suffice it to say, the various story threads force the Family Landry into coming to terms with their respective challenges. It takes a lot to transform an unhappy family into a happy one, and these characters have their work cut out for them. But circumstances like these are not insurmountable when we turn to the truth as the means for sorting them out, even if it takes quite a boatload of it to make that happen.

The Landrys clearly have a lot to sort out for themselves, too, both individually and with each other, as well as with some parties outside the family. How they reached that point is not entirely apparent, but, based on what transpires in their story, there are some clues about the origins of these issues. And, in virtually every case, it comes down to their beliefs, an important point to recognize considering the role they play in the materialization of their existence, a product of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that accounts for this development. It’s unclear if any of the characters here have heard of this way of thinking (based on the circumstances, though, probably not), but, if they ever hope to straighten out their lives, they had better brush up on its principles and start putting them to use.

Based on the aforementioned clues, several recurring themes appear to be part of their beliefs. Perhaps most importantly, they drift through their everyday lives without paying much attention to them and the impact they carry. The family members seem to move from one incident to the next without giving much thought to the beliefs that inspired those events. As a consequence, they’re nearly always relegated to response mode when circumstances manifest in their lives. Granted, responses are indeed required in these situations, but, given that this appears to be the primary way they deal with their conditions, they’re always “catching up,” never getting out in front of matters. And that, unfortunately, lessens the chances of them using their beliefs to create what they want rather than simply relying on them to get themselves out of yet another jam. Is that really the way anyone would want to try and take charge of his or her life?

Consider the situations of the two brothers. Graham and Will both perpetually react to what happens rather than taking control over their destinies. Is it any wonder, then, that their lives aren’t turning out as hoped for? And this applies to both their individual circumstances, as well as their relationship with one another, a scenario in which they’re again relegated to reacting than being proactive. One can’t help but wonder when they’re going to dig themselves out of this rut. But, if they don’t have the means for figuring this out in the first place, it’s easy to guess where their futures may lie.

Family matriarch Sue Landry (Becky Ann Baker, left) engages in one of her passions when she joins a country singer (Rodney Crowell, right) for an impromptu performance in a Chicago neighborhood bar in writer-director Haroula Rose’s “All Happy Families.” Photo courtesy of All Happy Families.

Secondly, it appears that many of the characters are locked into a pattern of wishful thinking rather than realistic expectations, holding on to beliefs that don’t suit them and aren’t likely to get them where they want to be. This can be quite an impediment to one’s personal satisfaction and fulfillment, especially when their erroneously embraced beliefs prevent them from tapping into more appropriate intentions, those that more closely align with their true selves and are much more likely to take them where they should and want to be.

In Graham’s case, for example, he’s almost certainly not destined for a career as an actor, no matter how much he aspires to it. However, if he were to put more faith into his beliefs of becoming a writer, he may place himself in a stronger position with far greater potential for his future.

Likewise, Will seems to think that his success will always carry him through no matter what challenges may arise in his professional and personal life, but is celebrity (and his belief in it) enough to save the day? After all, a publicist can only do so much. He’s obviously created situations where he needs to take some responsibility for what has resulted, given that those materializations originated with him and his beliefs in the first place. But will he recognize the need for this, or will he continue to blissfully and blindly float through his circumstances in hopes that something will turn up? If that’s not wishful thinking, I don’t know what is.

A significant remedy for such conditions is to leave oneself open to alternatives, options that strip away limitations and provide possible answers to getting on with one’s life. There are influences that the characters can draw from, too, sources of inspiration that can help show them the way to effective solutions. Sue, for instance, can see that things aren’t right in her life, both in her marriage and in her dealings with Jerry, and she’s willing to step up to the plate and consider alternative options, setting a good example for those around her. The same is true for Evie, who’s having questions about her gender identity but isn’t afraid to examine possibilities that better suit her than the expectations that others may have summarily thrust upon her (smart kid). Then there’s Dana, who realized that acting wasn’t for her (despite her love of it) and refocused her beliefs on charting a new career path rather than holding out hope for something unlikely to succeed. Even seemingly casual, off-the-cuff observations, such as those offered up by Olga and Phil, can help provide direction on how to proceed (provided that their recommendations are listened to, that is).

Pursuing a radical change in focus can prove useful, too. Graham, for example, seems to have placed much of his attention on promoting his career, fostering family harmony and dutifully carrying out the building renovation. But what satisfaction have these activities afforded him? He seems to be continually burdened by them, never devoting much attention to what gives him any personal pleasure, something that undoubtedly has contributed to the ongoing Tolstoy-esque unhappiness in his life and family. Maybe Dana’s resurfacing is a way of changing all that, a development that he may have unwittingly drawn to him through beliefs with which he’s yet to fully get in touch. Perhaps further exploration of this possibility is what’s called for, a change that could have implications both in Graham’s life and, eventually, that of the Landry family overall. At the very least, it’s something to consider in light of how things have been going.

Genial plumber Phil (Antoine McKay, right) offers reluctant (and lovelorn) landlord Graham Landry (Josh Radnor, left) advice about pipes and passion in the delightful comedy-drama “All Happy Families,” currently playing the film festival circuit. Photo courtesy of All Happy Families.

The big question that remains, of course, is, will the Landrys become one of those happy families that the picture’s title suggests? That depends on a lot, particularly recognition of the role that their beliefs play in their lives, making an effort to discover which particular intents are prevailing, ridding themselves of and rewriting those notions that aren’t working for them, and getting better in touch with the fulfillment they really want (and the beliefs that help make that possible). That sounds like a template for happiness in my view. And, even if the family members don’t always get along, that doesn’t mean they can’t work at trying to figure out how to put such a plan in place. That kind of harmonious cooperation can go a long way. If you doubt that, just ask Leo Tolstoy.

Movie portrayals of family life often leave much to be desired when it comes to authenticity (especially for offerings like those found on such outlets as the Hallmark Channel). So it’s genuinely refreshing when a film comes along that depicts these stories with honesty while being thoroughly entertaining at the same time. Such is the case with writer-director Haroula Rose’s second feature outing about a Chicago family going through a variety of difficult transitions that become ironically (and often hilariously) interconnected, all served up with sparkling wit and an excellent array of one-liners that are undeniable zingers but without being hurtful or nasty. The construction of the narrative and its accompanying screenplay are meticulous and economical, moving along with a steadily sustained pace and never getting bogged down by prolonged sequences that languish or lose their zest, much in the style of director Nicole Holofcener’s works. All of this is brought to life by a finely assembled ensemble cast, especially its five principals (Radnor, Huebel, Baker, Ashton and Russell) but also in its palette of intriguing, eminently well-chosen supporting players. What’s more, the film does a superb job in its depiction of Chicago’s people and neighborhoods, presenting an authentic look and feel of the Windy City, one that residents of the filmmaker’s hometown will especially relish and appreciate. “All Happy Families” is one of those offerings that aren’t widely seen (or made) anymore, but it’s one of the best I’ve screened in a long time.

It may take some effort to find this cinematic charmer at the moment, as it has primarily been playing the film festival circuit, such as at the 2023 Chicago International Film festival, where it made its debut. However, along the way, the picture has been warmly received by audiences and critics, earning a number of festival awards and nominations. It’s continuing to play at festivals this year and is said to be receiving a wider release later in 2024. Be sure to look for it.

No one ever said family life is a piece of cake, as many of us can probably attest. Making things work when there are different and potentially contradictory agendas in play can be nearly impossible. And, of course, there can be other diverse considerations involved based on relationship dynamics and longstanding family history. But maybe that’s the inherent challenge, to see what can be created out of such seemingly disparate elements. The results may surprise us in the end, bringing us unforeseen happiness that we hadn’t expected or even thought possible. And what a joy that would be.

Copyright © 2023-2024, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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