Writer-director Casey Tebo’s Happy Birthday plays like it was written by a bro who just discovered the early films of Quentin Tarantino. The film’s egregiously jejune worldview, laced with passive-aggressive misogyny and more-than-borderline racism, kicks into immediate high gear when birthday boy Brady (Matt Bush) is convinced by his alpha-male friend, Tommy (Riley Litman), to drive down to Mexicali and party after Brady discovers his girlfriend had cheated on him—a conversation consisting of slut-shaming and an eye-rolling discussion of the racist implications of Gremlins. It’s the first of many long-winded and smug ruminations on race in pop culture.
Once Brady and Tommy reach Mexicali, they endure a drug-fueled bender with eccentric locals and are eventually seduced and kidnapped by Katie (Vanessa Lengies) and Lucia (Britne Oldford), two women working for a notorious cartel. Amid the script’s relentless spewing of crude genitalia jokes, Tebo occasionally shows the evolution of Brady’s fear of the unknown into an enveloping paranoia through expressive surrealist visuals and editing, most notably during Brady and Tommy’s partying. Ultimately, though, it’s difficult to empathize with these feelings when they belong to two selfish characters whose fears are rooted partly in how they aren’t getting laid.
With Happy Birthday, Tebo presents a vision of Mexico that feels comparable to Donald Trump’s idea of the country: As Brady and Tommy roam the streets of Mexicali, they discuss how almost every citizen is at worst a violent criminal and at best a swindler, qualities reflected in the characters Brady and Tommy come across. And yet, when it comes to Katie and Lucia, Brady the hopeless romantic initially sees them as angelic and incapable of transgression, mainly because they’re the two people who have the best chance of filling in the role of sex objects that he and Tommy seek as part of his birthday trip.
It’s odd for a film that verges on explicit xenophobia to have characters regularly engaging in straw-man arguments on the subtextual racism in popular movies, but these self-consciously philosophical speeches are only part of the high opinion Tebo has for his own story. Throughout, Brady and Tommy, who both work for a big shot Hollywood producer, reference how they’re trying to create the perfect story to make into a film, with Tommy being the most optimistic that their trip will turn out to be crazy enough to adapt. In this regard, Happy Birthday takes on an increasingly meta quality, but one can’t help but feel that Brady and Tommy are mouthpieces for Tebo, and subsequently that the director truly believes he’s enacting the perfect story. This feeling also stems from the fact that the film features not a lick of irony or satire in its suspicious views of a foreign country and proud flaunting of the privilege of being a straight, white, American male.