In French writer-director Alain Raoust’s endearing and subtly poignant indie dramedy As Happy As Possible (Reves de jeunesse), “possible” is the key word in a movie that reveals both the limits society places on its young, and the possibilities youngsters try to create for themselves in a world that doesn’t offer them many choices.
Carried by a serene lead performance from Belgian actress Salome Richard (Baden Baden), and marked by flashes of deadpan comedy mixed with moments of poetic reflection, this is a small movie that says some big things in its own humble and humorous terms. Premiering as the opening night film of the ACID sidebar in Cannes, it’s been picked up for distribution in France and could drum up niche interest elsewhere.
A sensitive, offbeat portrait of youth in quiet revolt.
Bookended by two scenes set in an unnamed city in the south of France, the story (written by Raoust and Cecile Vargaftig) otherwise takes place at a near-desolate waste disposal site in the middle of nowhere. Surrounded by rolling hills and nestled by a flowing stream, it’s a sort of makeshift hamlet where people stop by to get rid of old furniture, clothing or anything else that doesn’t fit into their regular garbage cans.
It’s there that Salome (Richard), a young, rather stoical woman on the cusp of 30, has landed a summer job as the temporary caretaker. Initially, she was supposed to live in off-site housing belonging to the owners, but when they promptly disappear after her first night, she’s forced to squat in an abandoned van parked at the dump.
We don’t know much about Salome to begin with— only that she used to live in the area and is coming back for the first time in 10 years. But as the narrative progresses, and Salome crosses paths with an old friend, Clement, (Yohann Zimmer), we learn the site used to be managed by her ex-boyfriend, Mathis, who became a radical left activist as part of France’s zadiste movement and was recently killed during a protest.
Raoust, whose other indie features include La vie sauve (1998), The Cage (2002) and Indian Summer (2007), mixes the story of Mathis’ militant past, which we glean from autobiographical tapes he left behind at the waste site, with Salome’s adventures on the job, which include meeting Jess (actress-singer Estelle Meyer), a flamboyantly funny reality TV star who got lost on her Survivor-type show and somehow wound up there.
Providing some comic relief, Jess is the yang to Salome’s yin, and the two opposites manage to find common ground as outsiders — as rebelles without a cause in their pleasant dump of an oasis. At least compared to the rest of the world, they are the bosses there, with plenty of time to spare and nobody to bother them save for the occasional random cyclist, one of whom stops by on a hilariously misguided suicide mission.
Not much actually happens in As Happy As Possible, whose offbeat tone and ground-level portrait of 20-something nobodies feels closer to the films of the Mumblecore group than to your typical French movie. Like in those U.S. indies, Raoust seems to have his finger on the pulse of what youngsters in France — and elsewhere in Europe — are currently feeling: a sentiment of unease, of being lost in the wilderness of a society that constantly eludes them, of having no real sense of control or accomplishment.
That anxiousness is channeled by Richard’s quietly powerful turn, which manages to create emotion in the smallest of gestures or reactions as Salome, inspired by Mathis’ example, gradually opens up to a new way of living and seeing things. If Raoust’s film begins with a sense of helplessness, with a sense of being stranded in the modern world, by the end it offers up the chance for Salome and others like her to build their very own utopia. To Margaret Thatcher’s famous pro-capitalist dictum that “there is no alternative,” the film seems to be saying that there is one indeed.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (ACID)
Production companies: Cinema Defacto, Terratreme Filmes
Cast: Salome Richard, Yoann Zimmer, Estelle Meyer, Jacques Bonnaffe, Christine Citti
Director: Alain Raoust
Screenwriters: Alain Raoust, Cecile Vargaftig
Producer: Tom Dercourt
Director of photography: Lucie Baudinaud
Editor: Jean de Certeau
Composer: Dead Combo
Sales: Urban Distribution International