CATEGORIES Comedy, Independent, SXSW, Theatrical Reviews, Festival Reports, Cinematical Indie, Reviews, SXSW Film Festival, Cinematical
It's a good thing for films to tell people to follow their dreams, but it can't hurt if they also learn that their dreams will more readily become a reality if they can come up with some sort of business plan. It's this second part of the "follow your dream" paradigm that's key to the success of The Happy Poet, a film about a young, optimistic poet who aspires to open a health-food restaurant. Although its deadpan humor may have the same appeal to some as the main character's organic lunchmeat alternatives, writer-director-star Paul Gordon crafts a simple, well-told story that manages to entertain and even inspire simply because it functions practically and realistically rather than subscribing to the empty wish-fulfillment of so many other movies.
Gordon plays Bill, a lower-than-low-key post grad who secures a small loan in order to open his own health-food restaurant. Actually, to call the loan "small" is an overstatement; with the money, Bill can almost afford to buy his own hot dog cart, if he pays in installments. With no money for marketing and otherwise terrible business sense, Bill quickly loses hope when his organic alternatives fail to catch on. But after a buddy agrees to make deliveries and promote his food, the cart begins to turn a profit, although Bill quickly realizes that there are a number of important lessons he still needs to learn before he can consider himself a successful entrepreneur.
Despite (or perhaps because of) also juggling responsibilities as the writer and director, Gordon deftly manages to carry the film playing its main character, a guy too passive even to be passive-aggressive, but who still wants to launch a profitable business. Admittedly, the film's muted rhythms take a little getting used to, but once you're acclimated to Gordon's long takes and just-short-of-painful pauses between reactions, it's easy to understand and sympathize with Bill's ambition. This is a guy who really just wants to do something capital-m meaningful – hence his failed shot as a professional poet – and to say that he's scaled back his goals to this quiet, healthy-little business feels like a more realistic and plausible way of attaining them.
Even better, the film's dry sense of humor belies sincerity, rather than the kind of ironic detachment that seems to pop up frequently in independent films, and further allows the audience to identify with Bill. As a result, we want to see him succeed, and relate to his disappointments and failures as he finds his footing as both a businessman and just an adult. In which case, I guess the film is a kind of wish-fulfillment after all: the story within the film shows how hard it can be to work towards a goal, while Gordon's efforts behind the camera suggests that it's possible to attain it. Because The Happy Poet is a modest, funny little charmer – a textbook "independent film" in many ways – but it's got the romantic heart of a mainstream movie, which why you want to see its dreams become reality, and after watching it, you feel like yours can, too.