The struggle contained within writer/director John Goshorn's indie drama The Happiest Place on Earth is real.
It's played out nearly every single day it would seem.
Somewhere, there's a Jonah (Tom Kemnitz, Jr.). Very often, there's a Maggie (Jennifer Faith Ward).
In the film, Jonah is a young newspaperman early in his career with a wife, a new home and a life filled with promise.
Of course, The Happiest Place on Earth isn't really so much about, well, happiness. I suppose it could be said that The Happiest Place on Earth is about that increasingly elusive search for happiness in a world where the haves have more and the have nots are left fumbling toward an American dream that can never be reached.
Only days after buying their dream home, Jonah's position at the newspaper is eliminated and this one simple act sends his and Maggie's lives into a seemingly endless downward spiral. Unable to find a new job and unable to negotiate new terms on the house, Jonah becomes increasingly desperate while Maggie, a daycareteacher, takes a waitressing gig to help pay bills.
Both struggle to hold on.
Familiar scene, right? Played over and over and over again.
If you've worked in journalism over the last twenty years, you've seen it. You've been surrounded by it. Hell, maybe it's impacted your own life, too. It's not just journalism, of course. It's the American dream imploding over and over and over again.
After one particularly interview, Jonah escapes to the coast to regroup. He never returns.
Presumed to have drowned while kayaking in the ocean, Jonah's disappearance leaves Maggie's life in even greater disarray with bills piling up and emotions scattered somewhere between indescribable grief and an aching suspicion that there's more to Jonah's disappearance than anyone knows.
After a successful festival run that included screenings at such fests as Twin Rivers Media Festival, Orlando Film Festival, Cinequest, Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival and others, The Happiest Place on Earth is closing down its festival run and getting amped up for a summer 2017 VOD release.
The Happiest Place on Earth is the kind of film that you find yourself watching on some cable channel late at night mumbling to yourself "Man, this is really good. Why haven't I ever heard of this before?" While the film's microcinema roots occasionally reveal themselves, The Happiest Place on Earth is the sort of retro cinematic experience that one seldom sees coming out of Hollywood anymore in favor of cookie cutter superheroes and paint-by-number plots. It's the kind of film that draws you in until 90 minutes later when you look at the time and can't believe it's already over.
While the entire ensemble cast is strong, much of the credit for the film's success goes to Jennifer Faith Ward for a performance that is complex, intuitive and heartbreaking in its sensitivity and insight. Ward, a Crystal Reel Award-winning actress, gives the kind of performance that makes you realize that there's much more going on here but is shaded enough to never let you know what it is until you're supposed to know.
D.P. Jeffrey Gross lenses the film beautifully often bathing the film's characters in a sense of foreboding melancholy and doubt. He vacillates between close-ups of aching tension and distant shots reflecting, perhaps, the always bigger picture. Gavin Salkeld's original score infuses the film with a sense of mystery and doubt as if we've entered a cinematic labyrinth. Goshorn's direction is quietly assured, devoid of the usual heightened dramatics and instead resting in the universal familiarity of his story that is both familiar yet strikingly unique.
For more information on The Happiest Place on Earth, visit the film's website linked to in the credits. When released on VOD, this is definitely a film worth checking out.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic