There is no pain quite like pain shared. Which makes Lynn, as played by Ellen Barkin in “Another Happy Day,” the Mother Teresa of miserablism. She wants you to hurt like she does. It’s the only way she can properly convey her splintered psyche, a personality almost pathologically addicted to failure and shame after a lifetime of ignominy and mistreatment. She is the person who breaks your heart, then nakedly attempts to shatter the pieces for added affect.
Divorced mom Lynn is en route to Annapolis at the start of “Another Happy Day,” bringing along two of her problematic sons, Elliot (Ezra Miller) and Ben (Daniel Yelsky). Prepubescent Ben, pudgy and precocious, hides his insecurities behind a filter-less intellectual curiosity that both pleases and startles Lynn. Elliot, now in his upper teens, turns off the outside world by immersing himself in drugs and alcohol, a place he still inhabits despite being plucked from rehab for this family gathering.
Lynn’s third son, Dylan (Michael Nardelli), is getting married. However, Lynn’s warm feelings for the one person in the family not frustrated or exasperated with her most likely stems from her estrangement from the boy. While he claims Lynn is definitively his mother, he was raised by Lynn’s abusive ex-husband Paul (Thomas Haden Church) and his still-sultry spouse Patty (Demi Moore). That they can share a conversation without a fight speaks to their innate human decency combined with their deep unfamiliarity with each other.
At least Lynn can claim blond kewpie Alice (Kate Bosworth) as her daughter. And yet, pretty as a flower, the college-age Alice nonetheless has a reason for always wearing long sleeves. On one side of the party, there’s Lynn, having repeated arguments with her inebriated teen son, trying to relate to the social awkwardness of the other, and hiding sharp utensils from her daughter. On the other is the perfect bride and groom, flanked by the regretful Paul and his proudly fit second wife. The seeds of drama, easily planted.
Despite a long, storied career, it’s safe to say you’ve never quite seen Ms. Barkin in a role like this. You like and relate to her not only because she’s a victim, not only because she’s been placed in an impossible family situation, but because her self-sacrifice is both selfless and selfish. In her genuine concern for family members, and her love of her sons, there’s real humanity, real depth, and on several occasions, real tears. Movies ignore the sacrifice of the self one must have to be a parent, but in “Another Happy Day,” this particular mother needs something, anything to exclusively call her own. In lieu of a modern, middle class lifestyle, she chooses suffering.
Barkin’s Lynn reacts to even the faintest slight as if there’s a long history of pain behind it. There is, in some cases, particularly when Lynn’s mother (Ellen Burstyn, flawless) plays favorites amongst her own three daughters. But, more often, it turns Lynn’s every gesture into a Grand Opera. It’s a martyr complex, and to not understand the lengths some will go to share their pain is to not understand exactly how loneliness works. Having been left by her abusive ex, Lynn finds solace in quiet, reasonable conversations with her otherwise intelligent addict son. The fact that he ends these “reasonable discussions” with a hailstorm of abuse is the sort of sacrifice Lynn feels she needs in order to show love. If you’re familiar with the young Miller’s acidic body of work, you’ll understand how deplorable his character can be.
Because of this construct, the notion of a martyr being surrounded by a family where everyone bares knives, metaphorical or otherwise, “Another Happy Day” is a genuinely tough sit. There’s no group hug, there’s no pithy observations, it’s all just people trying to get by, not minding if they trample over their loved ones to do so. And all the while, marriage brings them together, but it’s death that lingers, with Lynn’s elderly father (George Kennedy) barely keeping it together through mild heart attacks and the common ravages of old age. Lynn manages to turn every conversation into a therapy session, which only gives the troops more ammo: when her oblivious father shows his age by comforting Paul about admitting his abusive tendencies, Lynn can only shrink, pouting and returning to a childlike state of anger.
“Another Happy Day” is the directorial debut of Sam Levinson, and it feels sharp and dangerous, wrapped in barbed wire. Barkin’s Lynn is a wholly distinct characterization, and while Levinson creates a situation where she shows her scars and deficiencies, Barkin crafts the emotional context that makes her likable, relatable, at times contemptible but never worthy of hate. In a year stuffed with marquee female performances, it’s the best of the bunch, and, hopefully, the start of a fruitful partnership. [A]