Breathing Happy has its European première at Soho Horror Film Festival 2022
“I’m at one year sober today. I dunno, technically I’m not gonna get it until another hour and 40 minutes, but even I can’t fuck that up, right? I miss you guys. Merry Christmas.”
This is the voicemail message that Dylan Bradley leaves for his oldest sister near the beginning of Breathing Happy. He is by himself in the Bradleys’ Florida holiday house, it is nearly midnight on the eve of both Christmas and his birthday, and this long-term addict has mixed feelings about the milestone that he is about to reach. For it is too late to impress his adoptive father (John D’Aquino) who succumbed to cancer years ago, or his adoptive mother (June Carryl) and sisters Briana (Brittney Escalante) and Lilly (Augie Duke), who were all killed in a recent accident. Even his beloved dog Angel has disappeared.
So Bradley is celebrating alone, even as he recalls Christmases past, reviving his remorse for a life spent disappointing and alienating those who loved him, while also grieving their absence. Although those 100 remaining minutes might seem like nothing compared to twelve months of being clean, it is also roughly the length of a movie – and over the duration of this feature debut from writer/director/editor Shane Brady (previously better known as an actor and here playing Dylan), our protagonist will drift off on the sofa, and reawaken to an existential anxiety dream.
Breathing Happy is like Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella A Christmas Carol updated to the present day and relocated to the Sunshine State. Dylan may be no miser, but he is nonetheless tormented by visitors who show him fragmented visions of his past, present and future, and confront him with the corrosive effect that his chronic addictions have had on his relationships with others. It is also reminiscent of Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), as a man spending Christmas Eve in a highly depressed and vulnerable state is shown the worst but also the best of himself.
On this long dark night of the soul, surreally lit in the vivid blues, greens, reds and yellows of Christmas fairy lights, Dylan must negotiate the question of whether the cards that life has dealt him were products of genuine choice or of a loaded deck (his late father was a devotee of magic tricks), and reconcile himself to the dead. He also has to decide whether he wants to continue the line of a good family from which he has always felt a little estranged (genetically and otherwise), or to bring it, along with himself, to a permanent end.
Dylan’s inner conflicts will be figured as a set of dilemma-like choices. His ex-dealer Marshall (Hugh Scott) will offer him a choice of two gift bags: one supposedly full of healthy goods, the other hard drugs. Two portals – the Golden Door and the Mystery Door – will magically appear in the house and, voiced respectively by Aaron Moorhead and Sarah Bolger, argue together through which of them Dylan should pass, with his yoga therapist (voiced by Justin Benson) joining in via Dylan’s cell phone. While these encounters are absurd and funny, Dylan’s trip down memory lane, aided (or is it triggered?) by his father’s old camcorder and a range of notes and items hidden about the house, is a harrowing if therapeutic odyssey, always tinged with a profound sadness.
“I’m just sick of living in the fucking Twilight Zone,” complains Briana, “and we keep having to do this shit over and over again.” Briana is – or was – speaking about her brother’s recurring cycle of addiction and the damage it was doing to everyone else as well as to himself. Breathing Happy really is like the Twilight Zone, with the holiday house a transitional space of regret, recovery, even redemption, and accommodating the dead no less than the living. Dylan may have to face his history and his prospects straight, but the viewer is taken with him on a frenetically cut, disorientingly desultory ride though a man’s oneiric interiority as he hesitates to embrace both tradition and change, and to find his own place at the family table. With its videotapes combining memory and fantasy, this evokes another film about limbo, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After Life (1998) – except that the arrested, unraveling Dylan really may have an ending that is happy awaiting him in the future, if he can only learn to stop looking back, to keep going and to breathe.
strap: In Shane Brady’s feature debut, a recovering addict spends Christmas Eve alone with his demons, regrets and sorrows.
© Anton Bitel