Fittingly Alexandre Franchi’s Happy Face is not what it appears to be on the surface. What starts off feeling like a sinister tale evolves into something nuanced and heart-wrenching.

When we first meet Stan (Robin L’Houmeau) he is taking part in a regular therapy group for those with facial differences. With his face partially bandage and cloaked in a hood, he sits quietly as others share their personal accounts of discrimination and isolation.

Each person’s facial differences may be unique, but they carry many of the same burdens. Well, all but Stan. You see the young man does not have a disability at all. He is a fraud. Trying to understand how to deal with his mother’s pending facial deformities, as she is battling cancer, his bandages cannot conceal the inner pain and turmoil he feels.

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As Stan’s behaviour beings to spark suspicion from the group’s instructor Vanessa (Debbie Lynch-White who is superb in the role), the teen makes it his mission to help the group find their confidence. However, it is Stan himself who must ultimately learn the real meaning of facing one’s fears.

Never going where the audience expects it to, Happy Face weaves several genres together to create a unique tale of grief and acceptance. It is a film that aims to show that we are more than just what appears on the surface. While Franchi’s intentions are in the right place, the film does occasionally fall into the trappings that many films about disability do. The film is told from the perspective of an able-bodied individual who must usher those with facial differences into living a more confident life. The stakes are always higher for the supporting cast than they are for Stan.

Thankfully the supporting cast, who have real facial differences, bring a layered nuance to the film. They enhance the strong performances of L’Houmeau and Lynch-White. By often framing them in close-ups, Franchi forces the audience to confront their own prejudices while ensuring the emotional core radiates even as the film takes unexpected genre turns. Happy Face finds strength in those whose unique exteriors only further enhance the beauty within.

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