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Movie Review

Happy Happy

Playing around with serious subjects in ‘Happy Happy’

From left: Joachim Rafaelsen, Agnes Kittelsen, Maibritt Saerens, and Henrik Rafaelsen in “Happy Happy.’’ From left: Joachim Rafaelsen, Agnes Kittelsen, Maibritt Saerens, and Henrik Rafaelsen in “Happy Happy.’’ (Magnolia Pictures)
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / September 23, 2011

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You can’t help but laugh at the obviousness in “Happy Happy.’’ Two Norwegian couples become neighbors in a snowy rural town, and the signs for trouble are clear the minute we see one of the husbands watching amateur wrestling before bed. That would be Eirik (Joachim Rafaelsen) who’s married to Kaja (Agnes Kittelsen), who’s all too ecstatic about Sigve (Henrik Rafaelsen) and Elisabeth (Maibritt Saerens) renting the adjacent house she and Eirik own.

When Eirik and Sigve do stretches after a run, the framing turns their thrusts into a comically suggestive exercise. But Sigve is already, well, exercising with Kaja at this point. And as long as this movie is about these relationships, it’s perceptive, even as the behavior has been rigged to get us from scene A to scene B. Why, for instance, would Kaja and Sigve flaunt their affair as they do in church before choir rehearsal? So someone can happen upon it and get us to scene C.

Working from a script by Ragnhild Tronvoll and Mette M. Bolstad, the director Anne Sewitsky commits herself to the psyches of the characters rather than to the sensationalism that might entice a shallower filmmaker. We’re allowed to understand Eirik’s misogyny and Kaja’s absorption of it. Elisabeth is an imposing, judgmental blonde, and while there’s really no understanding what she’s feeling, we like Sigve enough to trust whatever it is he sees in her. Even before his explanation, you also know why he’s drawn to Kaja - she’s Elisabeth’s absurdly polite opposite. Kittelsen has an open, kind face, and often the emotion it expresses belies the one she actually feels. It’s a delicate, touching performance.

The character, meanwhile, is the object of blunt hostility, sometimes from her own young son, Theodor (Oskar Hernaes Brandso). While the adults spent the movie ensnared in their games, Theodor finds a book about slavery and takes it upon himself to play master with Sigve and Elisabeth’s adopted African son, Noa (Ram Shihab Ebedy), the culmination of which involves the white child whipping his shirtless black neighbor. These scenes flirt with disaster, while simultaneously doing the rest of the movie a disservice. The intention was probably to make ironic the idea that what the kids are doing is so much heavier than what their parents are up to, to give the adult cruelty a cheeky moral corollary.

But Noa doesn’t talk. He barely smiles. He’s instantly open to subjugation. And his reticence is a dramatic necessity. An articulate, expressive child would speak up. It’s unbelievable that four adults wouldn’t notice what’s going on between the two of them. It’s even less plausible that any child of such imaginative and thoughtful people would be as dulled and emotionally dead as this one. The only reason they appear to have Noa is so that the movie can use him to make some naive point about what, really? Racism? Slavery? The dangerous state of Norwegian playdates?

The movie attempts to both explain everything away and pat itself (and Norway) on the back once we see Noa watching President Obama deliver his Nobel Prize speech. I don’t know how one cheers up a kid after requiring him to spend the day tossing snow into the basket on his back as though he were plucking cotton. But I don’t think informing him that America has a black president is it.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @wesley_morris.

HAPPY HAPPY

Directed by: Anne Sewitsky

Written by: Ragnhild Tronvoll and Mette M. Bolstad

Starring: Henrik Rafaelsen, Agnes Kittelsen, Joachim Rafaelsen, and Maibritt Saerens

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 95 minutes

In Norwegian, with English subtitles

Rated: R (sex, some nudity, and kids spending a movie playing plantation master and slave)

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