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Fantastic Fest: 'Happy Face' is a heartfelt look at facial differences

Matt Shiverdecker Special to the American-Statesman
"Happy Face" screened at Fantastic Fest 2019. [CONTRIBUTED BY FANTASTIC FEST]

In "Happy Face," his second feature film, French-Canadian director Alexandre Franchi brings us a story that could have been extraordinarily exploitative in lesser hands. The film made its Texas premiere Sept. 20 at Fantastic Fest.

Stan (Robin L’Houmeau) is a 19-year-old who is struggling with his family. He doesn't have much of a relationship with his father. His mother, battling an aggressive cancer, is borderline abusive towards him. In her mind, she might feel she is toughening Stan up as some kind of strange emotional insurance for when she passes away, but in reality it just confuses her son.

Stan turns to a support group for people with facial differences, but there's just one problem: Stan is a young, androgynous teenager without any scars. He painfully uses tape and bandages to wrap up his face for when he decides to go to their meetings (where the "person behind the face" posters are scattered across the walls), pretending he is just like the members of the group. This masquerade doesn't go unnoticed for long, and while the group's leader, Vanessa (Debbie Lynch-White), would like to give him the boot, several of the other members support Stan and fight for him to stay.

The movie uses many non-actors who authentically deliver experiences from their own lives. Some of the wonderful performances here are from David Roche, a man whose vascular malformation was exacerbated by extensive radiation therapy as a child; Cindy Nicholsen, whose skin is covered in warts and tumors; and E.R. Ruiz ("Sons Of Anarchy"), part of whose body was burned in a house fire as a child.

The humanity and raw power from the therapeutic dialogue in some of their scenes was unexpected for Fantastic Fest, an event not exactly known for booking emotionally resonant dramas. The storyline, which is quite personal for Franchi as it was inspired in part by his own mother's death from cancer, forces the audience to think about their expectations of what beauty is and how we treat those who are different from ourselves.

"Happy Face" does not currently have U.S. distribution, but hopefully successful screenings at events like Fantastic Fest will change that. This is a challenging and heartfelt film that deserves to find a wider audience.