Happiness for Beginners 2023 Movie Review
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Happiness for Beginners 2023 Movie Review

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Happiness for Beginners 2023 Movie Review

We first see Helen (Ellie Kemper) sitting alone at a party. All around her, people are talking, drinking, laughing, and dancing. She does not seem to notice anyone and no one notices her. She pulls out a piece of paper to re-read her list of goals for an upcoming hiking trip:

  1. Find a deeper connection to nature.
  2. Rise up from my own ashes like a freaking phoenix.
  3. Earn a damned certificate.

The party’s host is Helen’s brother, Duncan (an endearing performance by Alexander Koch), and she is only there to give him her keys so he can house-sit for her. But he has gone off with his girlfriend, so she gives them to Duncan’s best friend, Jake (Luke Grimes of “Yellowstone”). He asks her to stay: “You used to be so much fun.” She bristles, “I’m like so much fun you wouldn’t be able to comprehend it.” We don’t need to wait to see her give Duncan a laminated to-do list for the house-sit to understand that what she cannot comprehend is how not fun she has become.

The ashes she wants to rise from are her divorce and the unhappiness that led to it. But you do not have to have seen many movies to guess that she will learn to acknowledge some other ashes from her past on the trip and that when the leader, Beckett (Ben Cook), says that the hike, 81 miles on the Appalachian Trail in Connecticut and New York, will be “daunting but beautiful,” he is also talking about life and all of the challenges and opportunities we face.

You will probably also guess where this is going when Duncan’s friend Jake shows up as one of the hikers. He and Helen pretend they have not met before to avoid complicated explanations. Like a mapped-out trail, you know where it will end up, but there’s enough to enjoy along the way.

And there is plenty to enjoy here, including cinematographer Daniel Vecchione’s postcard-pretty scenery of New England fall colors, some poppy needle drops, and a gorgeous Pablo Neruda poem. Some characters are, as one of them says, “all more than we seem to be.” Each of them has an opportunity to surprise us and themselves. Shayvawn Webster has a warmly positive energy as the upbeat Windy, who has one of the film’s most meaningful moments relating to the title. Gus Birney probably has the most surprising revelation as the initially ditsy Kaylee. Even Beckett, the barely-older-than-a-Boy-Scout leader, shows us another side. The pre-credit sequence has a funny compilation of his most frequent comment. Blythe Danner is always a treasure and pure delight here as Helen’s grandmother.

The story’s heart is Kemper’s Helen, of course, and this role is a perfect fit. Helen is less sunny than most of Kemper’s roles, allowing her to show more subtlety, depth, and complexity. Her essential radiance is evident throughout, even with (apparently) no make-up in the scenes on the trail. Kemper has a monologue, a story from her childhood, which calls on her to show a vivid range of expressions as she recalls the before and after of a traumatic loss. It is very moving to see the fleeting softness and joy on her face as she remembers the “before” part of the story and then the grief, shame, anger, and effort she has put into compartmentalizing those memories for many years. 

Grimes has a less showy role; one might say the Ken to her Barbie. His big reveal will be no surprise to anyone. But he brings a welcome tone of wry humor to Jake, and we can see his feelings for Helen long before she does. More important, by that time, we want her to see them. 

Writer/director Vicky Wight adapted the popular novel by Katherine Center, following their previous collaboration on “The Lost Husband.” She keeps the tone bright but makes room for quieter moments. Some in the audience might be inspired to hike the Appalachian Trail, but all will be reminded that the beginner’s first step to happiness is gratitude. 

Happiness for Beginners 2023 Movie Review

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