An unexpectedly subtle coming-of-age film, Happiness Runs is also something of an allegory for Generation X’s conservative reaction against the flower-power excesses of their baby boomer progenitors. Unlike other filmmakers who attempt to represent generational conflict, Adam Sherman avoids many of the clichés about the relationship between parents and children, largely because the milieu he depicts is so unusual, a hippie commune that’s survived several decades after the Summer of Love, and because he himself grew up in such an environment.
Sherman’s semi-autobiographical teenage hero, Victor (Mark L. Young), lives on a commune in the ‘80s along with his parents. He and a group of other teenagers, all the unintended, even unwanted consequences of “free love,” have been exposed by their parents to drugs and sex at an unhealthy early age. Victor’s mother (Andie MacDowell), who’s independently wealthy, signs over huge sums of cash to her guru and commune leader, played by a particularly snake-like Rutger Hauer, who actually hypnotizes the people living there to keep them in line. Hauer, like with his other villainous turns, treads a fine line between genuinely frightening and comically hammy (he recites ridiculous mantras like “You fear the table; the table fears you”). It hits home for Victor that he has to leave when he sees his friend Becky (Hannah Hall) is addicted to drugs—one of several of his peers wasting away after years of parental neglect.
Sherman has directed essentially a social-problem film that’s also an escape movie, about Victor’s attempt to flee the commune and build his own life. It’s here, though, that he delves a little too far into pop psychology. Becky is self-destructive because she hasn’t been loved, an explanation for delinquency that goes back to James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. There, Dean ostensibly represented a youthful reaction against middle-class conformity. What distinguishes Happiness Runs is its take on adolescents rebelling against non-conformity, of actually wanting stability and convention.
Sherman quite appropriately never shows us an establishing shot of the commune that would give us a sense of its layout. Instead, he presents impressionistic snapshots of various locations that bear little spatial relationship to one another, as if this hippie-home just organically sprang up without any thought or planning, which is probably exactly what happened. Unfortunately, Sherman dives into the realm of pretension with a series of repeated dream sequences involving naked people covered in black ink. Despite this misstep, Sherman has conjured up a powerful vision of life turned upside down, with parents acting like children, children acting like parents, and nobody finding happiness.