A defiant, generically unclassifiable film that dares viewers to question its sensitivity, “Happy Face” centers on a 19-year-old named Stan (Robin L’Houmeau) who wraps gauze around his head and joins a support group for people with atypical facial appearances. When the assertiveness exercises proposed by the group’s leader, Vanessa (Debbie Lynch-White), don’t do much good, Stan takes command, illustrating for his new friends that cognitive behavioral therapy isn’t nearly as cathartic as dumping trash on gawking restaurant patrons. Stan’s vision for the cohort is a cross between a pushy version of the talking cure and a fight club.
Set in Montreal, “Happy Face” foregrounds actors like Alison Midstokke — who has a rare condition that affects the bones and tissues of the face — playing a hand model who sets her sights on full-body shoots, and E.R. Ruiz, as a police officer whose appearance changed as a result of a car crash during a pursuit. They project nuanced, charismatic mixes of confidence and wounded pride. But is it problematic to make a movie in which they need an implausibly poised impostor to lead them to personal breakthroughs, using character-building lessons derived from Dungeons & Dragons?
The director, Alexandre Franchi, who wrote the script with Joëlle Bourjolly, hedges against that charge by drawing a strained comparison between Stan and Don Quixote, and by giving Stan unresolved challenges of his own. (His mother, played by Noémie Kocher, with whom he is disturbingly close — she is shown scrubbing him in the bathtub — is dying of multiple brain tumors.)
“Happy Face” dares to be distinctive, and that’s something, even if the behavior — particularly Stan’s — isn’t always convincing.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes. Watch through virtual cinemas.