In a cold, remote Norwegian town, two houses sit side by side. In one, chipper junior-high-school teacher Agnes Kittelsen lives with her gruff, frequently absent husband Joachim Rafaelsen, who makes a habit of telling his wife how unattractive she is. In the other house resides icy, adulterous lawyer Maibritt Saerens and her affable husband Henrik Rafaelsen, who’ve just moved to the middle of nowhere in an effort to save their marriage. It’s no surprise that the teacher and the henpecked husband of Happy, Happy eventually fall into bed together, though what happens next is somewhat surprising, as director Anne Sewitsky and writer Ragnhild Tronvoll consider whether all concerned can learn to live peacefully with this new arrangement, or whether they prefer to return to their previous state of misery.
Happy, Happy unfolds in a fleet 85 minutes, with no wasted scenes and with strong performances from all concerned. Sewitsky and Tronvoll offer some sharp insight into the ways settled couples wound each other, mostly out of habit, and throughout, Happy, Happy contrasts the adults’ romantic angst with the interactions of their children: a blond brat and the adopted African boy he coerces into “playing slave.” The black boy plays along because there’s no one else to hang out with, but also because in the absence of any dissenting opinion of himself, he’s not sure whether their arrangement is improper. The relationship only changes thanks to some more positive images the boy finds on the Internet. (This may be the first movie to use a Barack Obama speech as a turning point for a character.)
Even aside from the way the children’s story disturbingly mirrors the adults’, Happy, Happy is too pat and predictable. Even the ironic title falls right into line. Still, the movie’s formula works reasonably well. The characters remain governed by what they’ve been told about themselves for years—that they’re ugly, devious, mean, low-class, or silly—until a fresh set of eyes changes what they see in the mirror. Knowing this mutual moment of stark self-awareness is coming doesn’t make its arrival any less powerful.