Between its plot (adult sisters come to terms with their father’s senile dementia), its title (which sounds more like a parody of a prestige picture than an actual one), and the presence of Demi Moore, it’s not hard to imagine why Mitchell Lichtenstein’s Happy Tears is tumbling out post-award season a full year after it debuted at the Berlin Film Festival. But there’s at least one big reason not to assume the worst: Litchtenstein’s previous film was 2007’s Teeth, a teen-horror comedy about an unforgettably literal case of vagina dentata. His milquetoast indie weeper is not your failed film professor’s.
Like Teeth, Happy Tears revolves around a woman paying for her sheltered existence. Married to a financially secure but emotionally unstable son of a late, legendary artist, Parker Posey’s Jayne returns to her childhood home to relieve sister Laura (Moore, who could use a wrinkle or two if she’s going to play harried) of caring for their elderly father (Rip Torn, who has been acting while knackered long enough to make any loss of composure work as the character’s). With Dad facing an unwelcome future and Laura bringing up an unpleasant past, Jayne is forced to confront reality — though not before slipping into a dementia of her own.
The admittedly maudlin material is thankfully undercut by Posey’s indie-vet archness and Lichtenstein’s sympathetic but straightforward filmmaking; he neither shies away nor raises an eyebrow at the familial ugliness. Even when he’s prolonging an “everybody’s fine” ending, you respect his desire to leave us on a high note — he hasn’t ignored the depths. It’s a small triumph, and the kind that may go unnoticed by those not already seduced by Posey or Teeth. But at least those indie film fans in question won’t walk out feeling like they should have known better.