Moody indie dramas about pretty twentysomethings consulting their pretty navels about whether or not they should be happy are a dime a dozen. And you can’t swing a hipster by his mustache these days without hitting a film or show about the daily grinds of life, love, and career in New York City. But Rodney Evans’s The Happy Sad manages to stand apart from the herd for a number of reasons, the most obvious of which is that the romance at its core is between two gay men of color.
Aaron (Chicago Fire’s criminally adorable Charlie Barnett) and Marcus (Leroy McClain) are happy and in love. But after six years together they recently experimented with a threesome to rekindle the home fires and are considering trying an open relationship. Elsewhere in the neighborhood, straight – but as we will soon learn, far from narrow – couple Stan and Annie (Cameron Scoggins and Sorel Carradine) break up during brunch at the restaurant where Aaron works, and thus begins a pansexual roundelay of carnal and romantic experimentation, infidelity, and generalized existential confusion.
The script, adapted by Ken Urban from his own play of the same name, is nothing spectacular aside from the fact that this may be one of the first movies about sexual identity that doesn’t feature any drag queens, suicide attempts, or homophobic run-ins. In fact, there’s not a whiff of homophobia to be had in the entire film – as I remember it, there’s not so much as a sideways glance. Much like its sassier cousin, Gayby (which also featured Barnett), Happy Sad takes place on what might seem like another planet to many: a world where gay people and straight people live their lives in constant harmony. It’s Brooklyn as the post-gay promised land.
While the plot may be thin, the grounded, engaged performances of Barnett and McClain kept me interested. A movie about a gay black couple is rare enough, but The Happy Sad goes further by sidestepping nearly every cinematic cliche usually assigned to gay men of color. These men are proudly, openly gay. They’re warmly affectionate in public, don’t throw sound-byte shade or cinematic diva fits, and are visibly free of any shame or self-loathing. And they aren’t required to defend themselves against homophobia from their church, families, or community. (I’m not saying that any of these things don’t happen organically in real life, mind you – I’m just saying that they have been go-to identifiers and devices in film for decades.) And when Marcus begins a secret affair with another man, the fact that one is white and one is black is never even acknowledged or remarked upon by anyone. It simply is. Director Evans – who notably tackled racism homophobia head-on in the groundbreaking Harlem Renaissance-focused Brother to Brother – builds an authentic space for these men to live in, resulting in excellent performances from both.
I unfortunately had considerably less patience for Stan and Annie, the heteroflexible kids looking to find a new paradigm for romantic happiness – their characters are not as fully developed, and as a result their behavior at times felt inconsiderate, or even irresponsible. But Maria Dizzia (who is also doing wonderful work on Orange is the New Black as Piper’s self-absorbed, pregnant bestie) is fantastically frazzled as Annie’s tragedy-prone coworker who finds herself on her own journey of self-discovery. Take note: she is one to watch.
The Happy Sad is one of those rare films about sex that is not about shame or judgment, and that doesn’t feel the least bit dirty – it could be the considerably less explicit younger sibling of John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus. While some drama naturally results from the various sexual combos that follow, the conflict is based in dishonesty, not shame. The closest anyone in the movie gets to looking down their nose at anyone else’s sexual pecadilloes – when a girl is surprised to learn that her previously straight boyfriend prefers to bottom when he is with another man – is a setup for a laugh, not a lesson.
This is an easy movie to write off or dismiss for its trappings: it’s talky, it’s low-budget, the acting is at times uneven, and it features unremarkable production design and an enthusiastic but distracting alt-folk soundtrack (as you can hear for yourself in the trailer above, which makes the movie look far more amateurish than it actually is). But I still find myself thinking about Aaron and Marcus’s relationship days after seeing the film – and chances are you will, too. For me, spending ninety minutes with them was definitely on the Happy side of Sad.
The Happy Sad opens Friday, August 16th in New York and Los Angeles. Check out the film’s website for more info.