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The Happiest Place on Earth opens with a montage of childrens’ pencil drawings, all depicting a typical family idyll. My mommy, my daddy, my brother, my sister and me. A dog here, a cat there. A house behind them, or maybe “Old Glory” herself. A sunny sky above. The happiest place on Earth. The drawings are by the children in the daycare centre where Maggie (Jennifer Faith Ward) is a teacher. Maggie is hoping to create a happiest place of her own. She and her husband Jonah (Tom Kemnitz, Jr.) have just purchased a brand new property. It’s a little pricier than they wanted but it’s perfect for raising a family, which is the step they want to take next. They’re doing everything right, playing by the rules, and everything is going right for them.
And then, before they’ve even finished unboxing, Jonah is made redundant from his job.
A new job proves hard to come by, since Jonah works as a layout artist in print media and newspapers all over the country are making cuts in that area, trying to expand their web presences instead. Maggie’s parents – disapproving of Maggie’s choice of husband in the first place – are well-off but reluctant to help (“You’re supposed to be an adult,” opines her mother, helpfully. “What would it teach you to bail you out?”), and Maggie herself refuses to take a step back in their life trajectory to a small apartment which would be more fiscally manageable but inappropriate for the child she wants to bring into the world. She takes a second job, waitressing, and Jonah starts mowing lawns but, since the bank won’t restructure their mortgage payments, it’s not enough to make ends meet. Jonah even resorts to rigging the electricity meter to save some money, although Maggie interjects and, after an argument, succeeds in stopping him from committing that act. The situation is becoming desperate, and it’s getting to them.
Following a particularly demeaning job interview, Jonah decides to take a short camping break for a couple of days, at Maggie’s behest (“I think it’ll be good for you to get away, and clear your head. Re-group. I… think it’ll be good for both of us”). However, Jonah doesn’t return from his trip. What has happened? Has he been dragged out to sea and drowned in his kayak as it would appear? Has he killed himself in order to try to avail Maggie of the $500,000 life insurance policy he’s taken out? Maggie doesn’t want to claim the policy in the hope that Jonah might still be out there but the world keeps turning, and it keeps squeezing, and Maggie is having to sell their belongings in order to get by. The insurance company aren’t likely to pay out on a death for some years; they’ll probably only pay out half without the discovery of Jonah’s body and, with the cops pursuing the likelihood of Jonah’s act being a suicide committed in order for Maggie to collect on the policy, she may never see a dime. She’s drowning now, too. Will she survive?
The Happiest Place on Earth, written and directed by John Goshorn, is anything but. Made with an impressively slight $10,000, it’s a bleak and sobering look at The American Dream gone bad, and how precarious our lives are within the society we’ve created. It’s not perfect; Maggie’s intractability in the face of her husband’s struggles make her hard to warm to, particularly through the first half of the picture. But the movie commands one’s attention from start to finish, due in no small part to the strong performances from leads Tom Kemnitz, Jr. and particularly Jennifer Faith Ward. Shot in an unassuming, low-key but almost dreamlike style and augmented by a beautiful ambient score by Gavin Salkeld, The Happiest Place on Earth is not the happiest film on Earth, but when it becomes available to VOD in the Summer, it will prove to be well worth eighty minutes of anybody’s time. Recommended.
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