“A Happy Day”


Screened at the 59th Annual Chicago International Film Festival (2/5); Letterboxd (2.5/5), Imdb.com (5/10), TMDB.com (2.5/5)

Fusing genres in a film project can be tricky business, as many failed and underwhelming cinematic examples have illustrated in recent years. And now writer-director Hisham Zaman can add his latest offering to that list. This absurdist comedy/romantic drama/coming of age tale profiles the stressful, uncertain lives of a group of teenage refugees who live in a government-run asylum camp in a remote region of Norway that’s perpetually covered in snow and frequently visited by wandering reindeer. They all nervously await their 18th birthdays, when they’ll be deported to their native countries, no matter how much they’ve come to embrace their newly adopted Nordic homeland. These conditions consequently yield a strange way of life, one riddled with anxiety, self-discovery and frequent attempts at running away (despite the harsh weather) in order to avoid the inevitable. However, while the film features its share of hilariously dry humor, moments of touching first love and profound drama, it doesn’t integrate them as well as they might have been. The narrative tends to meander, frequently switching tone and leaving viewers wondering what the filmmaker is going for, especially since grasping its meaning requires considerable audience foreknowledge of the circumstances being depicted. Some elements seem to come out of left field, too, many of which, according to the director, are intended to be poetic portrayals of these trying conditions. But these artistic aspects of the story often spring forth from obscure source materials that most viewers are unlikely to be familiar with. “A Happy Day” is obviously a meaningful, highly personal labor of love for the filmmaker, something that’s apparent in its stellar camera work, atmospheric score and fine performances by a cast of largely nonprofessional actors. Nevertheless, the material tends to come across as so “inside” that it’s frequently puzzling to those uninitiated in its unfamiliar subject matter and esoteric artistic references. Maybe this one will ultimately turn out to be a sensation in Oslo, but it’s not likely to play in Peoria – or virtually anywhere outside of Norway for that matter.