Happiness for Beginners movie review (2023)
In the midst of a lively party, Helen (Ellie Kemper) sits in solitude, enveloped by the revelry around her. Laughter, chatter, and dance fill the air, yet she remains unnoticed, engrossed in her own thoughts. Clutching a piece of paper, she peruses her list of aspirations for an upcoming hiking expedition:
- Forge a profound bond with nature.
- Embrace a triumphant rebirth akin to a phoenix.
- Achieve a hard-earned certificate of accomplishment.
The gathering is hosted by her brother Duncan (Alexander Koch), and her sole purpose is to hand him her keys for house-sitting. However, Duncan is preoccupied with his girlfriend, prompting Helen to entrust the keys to Duncan’s closest friend, Jake (Luke Grimes), who persuades her to stay. Helen, once full of zest, retorts defensively, “My fun is on a level you couldn’t fathom.” A laminated to-do list for house-sitting Duncan’s place further underscores her struggle to reclaim her vivacity.
Her journey to rise from the ashes signifies not only her divorce but also the lingering unhappiness preceding it. As anticipated, the hike becomes an allegory for life’s challenges and opportunities, mirrored by the hike’s arduous route spanning 81 miles on the Appalachian Trail across Connecticut and New York.
Predictably, fate brings Jake, Duncan’s friend, into the fold as one of the hikers. Helen and Jake feign unfamiliarity to avoid complicated explanations, following a path that the audience intuitively recognizes will lead to deeper connections.
Nonetheless, the film offers ample enjoyment along the way, from picturesque New England fall scenery captured by cinematographer Daniel Vecchione to well-chosen musical selections and a poignant Pablo Neruda poem. Characters, like hidden facets of a gem, reveal dimensions beyond their initial impressions. Shayvawn Webster shines with an infectiously positive energy as Windy, offering a profoundly meaningful moment tied to the film’s title. Gus Birney’s portrayal of Kaylee surprises, while even Beckett, the seemingly young Scout leader, unveils unexpected layers. Blythe Danner’s endearing portrayal of Helen’s grandmother adds to the film’s charm.
At its core, Kemper’s portrayal of Helen is a masterpiece, showcasing a depth not often seen in her previous roles. Helen’s complexity allows Kemper to display subtlety and emotional range, with her inner radiance shining even through makeup-free scenes on the trail. A poignant childhood memory monologue requires Kemper to navigate a spectrum of emotions, reflecting both the trauma of loss and the emotional fortitude she’s developed over the years.
Luke Grimes, as Jake, complements Kemper’s performance with his understated role, offering a touch of wry humor and subtle charm. The audience is well ahead of Helen in recognizing Jake’s feelings, eagerly awaiting her realization.
Adapted from Katherine Center’s beloved novel, writer/director Vicky Wight—reuniting with Kemper after “The Lost Husband”—masterfully captures the story’s essence. Amidst the vibrancy, Wight carves out moments of introspection, reminding us that even a simple first step towards gratitude can lead to happiness.
Now streaming on Netflix, “Rise from the Ashes” serves as a heartwarming reminder of the transformative power of connection, personal growth, and the scenic beauty of life’s journey.
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