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Review: Happiness for Beginners (2023)

Happiness for Beginners (2023)

Directed by: Vicky Wight

Premise: A recently divorced woman (Ellie Kemper) participates in a multi-day group hike through part of the Appalachian Trail. She’s unexpectedly accompanied by an old friend (Luke Grimes) and faces challenges along the way.

What Works: Happiness for Beginners is a midlife crisis story. Helen, played by Ellie Kemper, has gotten divorced and is trying to reset her life by hiking the Appalachian Trail. She’s joined on the journey by a group of fellow travelers including an old friend played by Luke Grimes who clearly has a crush on her. This is partly a love story and the conceit has been seen in many romantic comedies but Happiness for Beginners disguises the formula by populating the film with interesting characters and some compelling themes. A lot of love stories that start with a disillusioned character are about the redemptive power of love. That’s partly true of Happiness for Beginners but the filmmakers reach for more than that. Helen has a deeper character flaw to confront and the picture emphasizes her self-absorption and need to be independent and how she has to resolve these anxieties in order to fall in love again. The movie also has a cast of colorful characters. Each of Helen’s teammates is unique. These people are more than the caricatures in which they are initially presented and everyone has their own personality tick to address. Especially notable is Beckett, the guide played by Ben Cook. He’s arrogant and obnoxious but he also gets moments that reveal a deeper part of his personality. Through the guide’s exposition and the perils of the trip, Happiness for Beginners works in a lot of details about hiking and low impact camping. This gives the movie some credibility.

What Doesn’t: One minor technical issue with Happiness for Beginners is the lighting. Everything looks natural enough but a lot of the daytime scenes appear the same. There isn’t much difference between morning or evening scenes and the look of the film is overall rather flat. Happiness for Beginners presents itself as a story in which the characters learn about themselves and have life altering epiphanies. These subplots are underdeveloped. There is one scenario in which everyone has to pitch in and rise to the occasion but the film doesn’t emphasize what each person contributes or how they learn. Even Helen’s transformation is very slight. Her journey is bookended by visits to her grandmother (Blythe Danner) who comments on how Helen has changed after the trip but that’s not so evident in the story.

Disc extras: Available on Netflix.

Bottom Line: Happiness for Beginners is lightweight and fun but the filmmakers reach beyond the romantic comedy conceit. It’s got a cast of likable and interesting characters and the story has a little bit of depth.

Episode: #966 (September 24, 2023)