VIFF Review: ‘Happy Place’ is a powerful story about living with trauma

How do we survive trauma? How do we even begin to process it? This is the question asked in Happy Place, a story of a young woman in a private mental health clinic learning to live with her pain.

Samira (Clark Backo) didn’t choose her pain, it was inflicted on her by a stranger who stole his way into her bedroom and stole away her ability to feel safe. Five years later she has attempted suicide and ends up in the clinic and in the company of 5 other women who have all attempted the same.

Samira is desperate, both for a means to move past this unthinkable assault –one which gets worse with each new detail we learn– and to remember any details that might help the police catch the perpetrator.

Backo is captivating here and she works through Samira pain by gradually connecting with her fellow patients at the clinic. Her performance runs the gamut of human emotion and requires her to go to some very vulnerable places, and she does so with aplomb.

Clark Backo / Happy Place
Clark Backo / Happy Place

The rest of the ensemble is good as well, with Canadian icons Mary Walsh, Sheila McCarthy, and Pamela Sinha (who also wrote the screenplay) on board in supporting roles. Each of them brings something extra to the role, with Walsh as the acerbic Mildred, McCarthy as a hyper-competitive Joyce, and Sinha as Rosemary, a woman so terrified of losing the one thing she truly values that she refuses to take hold of it in the first place.

McCarthy, in particular, really stands out among the supporting cast. Whether she’s telling the story of how she previously met someone at a school for swingers or confessing what has her in the clinic, she steals each scene she’s in.

Sinha’s script is wonderful and weaves together their stories as they work to support each other, fight with each other, and make each other laugh. Sinha adapted the screenplay from her own play of the same name. Much of it, including Samira’s backstory, is very autobiographical. She is using her art to help process her own trauma and that’s quite powerful.

Happy Place is director Helen Shaver’s first feature film after a long career both in front of and behind the camera on TV (including directing episodes of Westworld, Snowpiercer, and Lovecraft Country just this year). It may be her first, but it will not be her last, Happy Place is too well constructed for that.

Happy Place is a powerful film about women coming together to support women and how the struggles with past traumas and mental health are best met unalone. It is one of the best films I’ve seen this year and one you should not miss.

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