As someone whose arcane interests have hindered his own sense of self-preservation, Keith (Tom McCaffrey), the schlubby main character of the darkly funny Happy Life, is no PhD, but he may be just as narrow-minded in his debilitating pursuit of something no one else seems to care about: ‘90s techno music. While the preposterousness of Keith’s life—his cultural blindness, that he still asks his parents for money—is made easy to laugh at, as Happy Life gradually chronicles his depressing struggle to put together a rave in order to raise money to save his failing record store, New York Tunez, it also celebrates his integrity and paints the new hipster culture that scoffs at him as contemptuous and debased. In other words, the film must have been made by someone about as old as Keith, who, we learn during a scene before he attempts to make out with a 17-year-old stoop-dweller, Lil’ Tina (Amanda Salane), is 35.
First-time writer-director Michael M. Bilandic’s tongue-in-cheek, bare-knuckles approach to his ultra-low budget paean to a dying breed is a welcome piece of independent filmmaking, one that goes against the general cultural tide of relentlessly embracing the new (Abel Ferrera, who produced, is the biggest and oldest name on the poster). Appropriately visualizing Happy Life‘s fringiness is Sean Prince William’s home-video aesthetic, a penniless look that creditably captures the feeling of being out-of-date, on-the-streets, and generally unappealing.
The non-actors in Happy Life read their lines bluntly, an effect that tends to make the film’s points feel forced, as if characters double for bullet points, appearing only to outline how Keith is irrelevant: the patrons of the tapas bar he spins at complain to him, causing his boss to fire him; fellow small businesses refuse to put up fliers for his rave; and the rave he tried to get into one night is revealed to him by a scornful hipster to have been a mockery. While this is obviously a limitation of stretching a single joke into a feature, the accuracy with which Happy Life uses these one-dimensional put-down scenes to situate Keith’s minuscule world in wider scope of things is masterly, a mark of a filmmaker whose paying close attention.
Keeping Keith’s hopes alive, Matt Pinfield drops by Keith’s store to hock some records and mentions that the legendary has-been DJ Liquidz (Gilles Decamps) might be interested in playing at Keith’s rave. But like everything else that Keith is excited about, we learn that DJ Liquidz is unlikely to attract a crowd, illustrated by one hipster’s line during a scene when Lil’ Tina is passing out fliers: “DJ Liquidz? Remember when that was cool? Back in high school?” Adding insult to injury, Liquidz participation in Keith’s rave is negligent, showing up tardy and obscenely high. Ultimately, though, no matter how much this character is emblematic of the distasteful fallout of being a techno DJ, he serves as the necessary component to connect the handful of people who do show up, glow sticks in hand, to dance at the pathetic rave.
The closer Happy Life gets to finally finding any joy in the fans of this passé scene, the more depressing it becomes: It’s clear that while Keith’s closest friends show up in support of him, because the rave failed to bring in money, his burdensome obsession with techno will lose in New York Tunez the one place it can safely exist, stomped out by the world’s indifference.