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DIRECTED BY: Shane Brady
FEATURING: Shane Brady, June Carryl, Augie Duke, Brittney Escalante, , John D’Aquino, Hugh Scott, Owen Atlas, voices of , Sarah Bolger,
PLOT: A recovering addict undergoes a metaphorical hallucination on Christmas Eve, which happens to be the anniversary of his first year sober.
COMMENTS: It can’t be stressed enough that Breathing Happy is made with a particular audience in mind: people within the recovery movement, and specifically, people within the recovery movement who also enjoy oddball movies. Within that extremely niche demographic, Breathing Happy‘s audience clearly loves it. Like faith-based movies, recovery movies are fraught with the danger of relapsing into the preachy and pedantic. Shane Brady here uses disorientation, impudent comedy, and a high (if seldom difficult to decode) level of metaphor to overcome those pitfalls. Mostly, it works: insider jargon and platitudes rarely intrude, are often subverted when they do, and the movie never feels like a lecture. And it is provocative—almost perverse—to make a recovery movie that plays like a psychedelic trip movie.
And Breathing Happy, a movie which features not one but two talking doors, is trippy through and through. It begins with a man sitting alone doing magic tricks with multicolored playing cards, intercut with a series of shots of blossoming clouds of colored pigments, emerging into a rapidly changing montage of decades-spanning home video footage, before slowing down a bit to introduce Dylan, its one-year-sober protagonist, alone on Christmas Eve. Things quickly take another turn for the surreal when he almost immediately awakens from a short winter’s nap to find his dog missing, alarms going off all over the house, weird lighting, and his old dealer, who talks like French Stewart, eating the Christmas pudding in his living room. From there, we embark on a non-linear journey of memory and discovery, achieved mostly through schizophrenic dream-logic editing that cycles through ghostly visitations, flashbacks, a comic 911 call, fractured bits of therapy and meditation sessions, and hallucinatory conversations with a couple of talking doors that represent the poles of sobriety and relapse. Breathing Happy rarely pauses to catch its breath, instead expressing the racing thoughts and regrets of its protagonist, who at one point tearfully confesses that his mind is like “a popcorn machine, fireworks, a bunch of hyenas fighting for attention…” The film dedicates itself to realizing that confusion, although it also sorts it out at the end and provides the expected happy grace notes.
Recovering addict Dylan’s backstory is revealed slowly and in a fragmentary manner. He’s adopted into a multiracial family, suffers a gruesome hockey accident that presumably puts him on the Oxycontin highway to hell, alienates everyone in his family, and loses everyone in his family—and then his dog gets cancer. Let’s face it, the guy’s going through a lot. The film is sympathetic to Dylan—maybe to a fault. Everything is seen from the addict’s perspective, how his addiction affects him rather than those around him. Sure, it’s hinted that his family has legitimate reasons for shunning him, but we’re not directly made privy to them: it seems like he ruins multiple Christmases through nothing more than impoliteness and slurred speech. We never see a big rock bottom moment, no stealing of his mom’s jewelry, no taking a swing at sis, not even nodding off face-first into the mashed potatoes at dinner. His sisters’ decision to cut Dylan out of the family therefore comes across as needlessly cruel. The movie is overprotective in its sympathy for the addict; the same events seen through an Al-Anon lens would have a quite different tenor. We don’t even know what Dylan’s drug of choice is (we default to polydrug addict popping whatever comes along, but I would have found it more interesting to take a deeper dive into the particular failings of a junkie, a tweaker, or a dedicated drunk). Dylan is at the same time incredibly specific in his personal history, but extremely generic as an addict: likely a deliberate choice to make his story as universal as possible. Still, I personally would have preferred Breathing Happy to include more direct and honest dysfunction, to show us more of Dylan’s drug-induced transgressions, to treat him with rougher gloves. The film’s pro-addict bias is admirable, but overplayed.
Although I am not part of Breathing Heavy‘s primary target audience, I was never bored with the movie, which always has a new angle at the ready. If you like weird movies, I suspect you will find it an easy watch. If you like recovery movies, I suspect you will find much to identify with. And if you’re a recovering addict who also likes weird movies—what are you waiting for? This was made specifically for you.
Breathing Happy is obviously a labor of love for star Shane Brady, who has previously been glimpsed as an actor in weirdish indies like The Endless, Tone-Deaf, Synchronic and King Knight. Brady wrote, directed, and edited (good job there) the film, as well as holding down the role of Dylan. and
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…a weird Christmas redemption story that defies genre… a mind-bending story about recovery, redemption, and grief with a pinch of magic for good measure.”–Sharai Bohannon, Dread Central (festival screening)