Many Gen-X- and Y-ers have been privy to benign, even endearing, vestiges of our parents’ hippie days — maybe we tittered over the illustrations in a tattered copy of The Joy of Sex, suffered through the tahini-drenched abominations of Mom’s misguided Moosewood phase, mused about how pops totally used to get blazed, salvaged a few psych gems from a musty record bin in the attic. Most of us were not, however, subjected to the type of kaleidoscopic 24/7 bacchanal that director Adam Sherman revisits in his semi-autobiographical debut Happiness Runs (the title is a tongue-in-cheek nod to the blithe Donovan song of the same name), a project whose self-reflexive scab-picking he claims “almost killed him.”
Buttery, lambent 8mm clips — of hippies gardening, building, tripping, bathing, snuggling, dancing — flicker during the opening credits, narrating a condensed visual history of a sprawling commune, presumably one similar to the Vermont settlement of Sherman’s upbringing. If you’ve seen footage of Woodstock, you know the milieu: everyone is pale and naked and goofy and vulnerable and happy. This shimmering idyll is abruptly gutted after an intertitle jogs the plot forward 20 years — Sherman’s film isn’t a paean to flower children at their vital apex, when everyone smelled like tilled loam and fresh bread and had really major feelings about abstract nouns like Peace and Love and War. Instead, Happiness Runs acts as a dystopian condemnation of that generation’s post-‘Nam torpor by focusing primarily on its refuse — the damaged children whose sordid, claustrophobic misadventures are a fractured testament to their parents’ own dissolution.
Relative newcomer Mark L. Young plays protagonist Victor, a.k.a. “Fishman,” with the type of seething, precociously wounded gravitas that made River Phoenix famous and which will hopefully do the same for Young. His love interest, Becky (coltish blond Hanna Hall of “Run, Forrest, run!” fame, all grown up) drops out of school and returns to the commune to care for her father, who is dying of lung cancer and whose agonized, shattered breathing is the only thing that elicits genuine emotion from her. She promptly resumes sleeping with all of Victor’s friends (“C’mon, Victor, I thought you guys were cool with that. I mean, it’s what our parents are like,” she coos) which precludes the shy, exuberant fumbling normally associated with young love; Victor must content himself with weary sex and listless pillow talk about “getting out,” always “getting out,” the distant promise of escape suffusing every scene with muted desperation.
No one could accuse Sherman of after-school special circumspection — nearly every scene in Happiness Runs devolves into a nihilist’s playground of detached drug abuse or rough, loveless sex, usually both. “We are capable of sensing everlasting pleasure,” avows Insley (Rutger Hauer), the commune’s lecherous, manipulative founder and resident tantra enthusiast. Fulfilling his chilling prophecy, the teenagers under his aegis are so glutted with “everlasting pleasure” that they feverishly pursue pain as an antidote to their parents’ anodyne numbness. Chest-thumping meathead Chad (Jesse Plemons) pops percs and vics filched from Becky’s dad but relentlessly courts violence, picking fights and screaming “I couldn’t even fuckin’ feel it! Hit me again. Come on, hit me again!” Loner Rachel (Laura Peters) gingerly picks at a plate of tofu and limp kale, while her mother is audibly double-teamed in the next room; later she huddles in the attic, listening to Joy Division and latticing her arms with a razor. Becky glibly relays a story about the time she vomited while fellating asinine dealer Shiloh (Shiloh Fernandez) and has to visit the chiropractor for a hip injury incurred after Shiloh responds too enthusiastically to ye olde demands of “harder, harder!”
Sherman’s pack of feral love children recall Larry Clark’s pomo street urchins or Catherine Breillat’s cauterized lolitas, and his vision would be as damning were it not for the mawkish flourishes of melodrama and MTV visual histrionics (think: redundant time-lapse cloudscapes, uncalled-for dream sequences) that unnecessarily bloat his otherwise muscular and nervy debut. Sherman’s sentimentality is partially redeemed by his wry sense of humor, lacking in similarly caustic coming-of-age films. The term “motherfucker” is bandied about non-figuratively because — har-dee-har-har! — everyone’s dad has slept with everyone else’s mom, rendering all claims of paternity tenuous at best. Victor’s supposed father is an excruciating Jerry Garcia clone who speaks in metrical verse and assures Victor that ol’ pops doesn’t need a bed because he sleeps with a different woman every night, a privilege Victor will surely inherit. But all Victor wants is for everything from whence he came to be annihilated. “I’m gonna burn this place to the ground. I’m gonna pour salt on the ashes so nothing can grow here for hundreds of years,” Victor snarls as the film nears its conflagrant, catastrophic conclusion. It’s difficult to not equate Victor’s rage with Sherman’s — his film is messy, indulgent even, but his excesses are always cut with a briny ferocity which, coupled with several bracing performances, yields an electric and worthwhile — if not enjoyable — first feature.