The Streaming Experience: Oliver Thompson’s “Welcome to Happiness“
With six short chapters, a prologue, and an epilogue, this cinematic thoughtful reorienting of our pain and guilt is what “Welcome to Happiness” is all about. It’s a heartbreaking and touching journey through a small door into another world or dimension, with the unknowing hope that tragedy can and will be reformatted into something with a better outcome. Written and directed by Oliver Thompson (“Billy,” “Annie’s Eyes Only”), this exploratory process is one where you, the viewer and the invited, hopefully, “shall be rewarded“, but maybe not as thoroughly or completely as you had hoped. The engaging first scene, or prologue, finds a young children’s book author by the name of Woody, played with tender vulnerability by the adorable Kyle Gallner (“American Sniper”), sitting in his apartment trying his best to create, when some sort of old fashioned printer kicks into action, quickly followed by a knock on the door. Woody seems to be ready, and somehow we connect the dots knowingly. He opens the door to a young woman, played with a quieted nervousness by the amazing Bess Rous (2016’s “Ghostbusters“) who appears to have no idea why she’s there. Woody gently guides her in and through a quirky process of delivery, basically asking her a few random very-open ended questions, which, in my opinion, would unnerve the steeliest of natures. She takes it all in, anxiously but somehow, with no fear, as she understands the compassionate and trusting air in the room, just like we instantly also do. We somehow know that we can put our trust in Woody, and through some sort of magic rock/color trick that vibrates with intensity, and some very impressive and subtle acting, we understand why this woman, as overwhelmed as she is, follows him into a clothes closet. He pulls some hanging clothes to one side, and reveals a small door in the back. He promises her, once he leaves the room, that the door will open, and she will be invited in. And just as he described, a warm light emulates from the door onto her face, and she smiles, shyly and simply. We can sense the shift away from sadness and regret that has filled her every pore. “I don’t have all the answers, but I’m telling you…” something miraculous has just happened, and within that first scene, as we see Woody sitting alone once again in his wildly muralled apartment, we have compassionately joined him and this film, giving it the exact same level of faith and trust this woman had just given to Woody.
“Just do what he says, even if it sounds peculiar,” and I’m game to that, as this captivating beginning has set the stage for something remarkable, gentle, and somewhat sad. Strangers show up, and are enlightened by the door’s tender rays. We, along with Woody, wonder what it’s all about. Why these people? And what is on the other side? With an original, somewhat overwhelming score by Thompson, a lovingly creative vision thanks to cinematographer Justin Talley (“Avengers: Endgame”), and clear editing by Lilly Grabowski, this emotionally engaging tale of a mystical portal that (we are guessing) welcomes these souls to happiness, keeps us fully tuned in, at least for the most part, while dishing out sideway glances to other arrangements and journeys that we hope get tied in sooner, rather than later. It’s an eclectic ride, filled with some clever visuals and a number of odd structures that ultimately don’t do the tale justice, but I was pulled in and held fairly tight from prologue to epilogue. Starring a wide and wild assortment of talented actors, such as a very underused Olivia Thirlby (“Juno”) as the love interest who keeps ignoring the red flags, reappearing for more, and then disappearing quite reasonably, only to reappear for a very (almost overly) tender conclusion; a curiously captivating (or should I say “cat-tivating”) Brendan Sexton III (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) as a suicidal cat artist; along with some quirky characterizations dished out by, once again, an underused Josh Brener (“The Front Runner”); Paget Brewster (“Grandfathered”); a wacky intense Nick Offerman (“Parks and Recreations“); a wildly caffeinated and captivating Keegan-Michael Key (“Schmigadoon!”); Molly C. Quinn (“Doctor Sleep”); and Robert Pike Daniel (“The Spoils of Babylon”). Through this rocky terrain, the door finally opens to us, and we are enlightened to the meaning. We soon see the light, and discover that the ushering-in is both emotionally complex, and, somewhat, sadly, too simplistic to fully fill us up.
“Everything happens for a reason, Niles,” it is said by the always delicious Frances Conroy (“Six Feet Under”), and we hear and understand the heady overarching idea that swirls behind that door. The overly pushy attempts at whimsy, is, in the words of Woody, “good. perfect. awesome.” but not. I must admit that I wanted the math to add up to something more than a circle in the desert, a chant, and a swaying dance, signifying salvation in the most simplest of terms. I was “ready for the cool part“, wanting maybe something more mystical or deep, delivered forth with a heart wrenching tug by the questionable Proctor (Key) and the green checked girl (Quinn), who is as heavenly as she is abstract. But that didn’t really come to be. “That’s not how it works.” “Then explain how it works, Moses.” Yes, please, but with something a bit more fulfilling that what was given. I wasn’t disappointed, not totally, but I was knocking on that cinematic door for something far more compelling than a cup of borrowed sugar. What we get is definitely sweet, and tasty, but not the main course I was complacently hoping for. Isn’t that right, Rutherford? I believe it to be so, Woody.
Strike Back Studios (a new joint venture between Realization Films, Public House Films, and Hideout Pictures), delivers the Minutehand Pictures director’s cut release of writer/director Oliver Thompson’s directorial debut, “Welcome to Happiness” which is now available for audiences to stream on Amazon Prime, Vudu, Tubi and other streaming platforms along with across TVOD platforms iTunes, Fandango Now, Google Play, YouTube, among others globally to rent or buy starting on August 27th.