Film Review – Happiness for Beginners

Happiness for Beginners

Happiness for Beginners

Here now is a rom-com that is so feathery light that it risks floating away. Happiness for Beginners (2023) is about as breezy and formulaic that it could have very well been a satire. You know all the tropes – a guy and girl have a Meet Cute, are annoyed with one another at first, get used to each other’s company, share personal stories, grow closer, fall in love, etc. It’s the same old song and dance. With that said, however, there is just enough good stuff going on that I was never bored. Yes, we have an idea of where this all goes, but like the rom-com genre in general, it’s not about the ending. This is very much a hang out story where the charm of the cast carries the whole production.

Writer/Director Vicky Wight (adapting Katherine Center’s novel) strikes a consistent tone between romantic and comedic elements. This isn’t a screwball farce, and at times can be surprisingly dramatic. That creates a solid platform for our main character Helen, played by Ellie Kemper. As some of you might know, Kemper has made a name for herself by playing upbeat and sunny characters (see Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt). While she does translate some of that persona into Helen, she also imbues her with a sense of melancholy. Feeling lost after a recent divorce, Helen tries to reinvent herself by joining a wilderness survival course through the Appalachian Trail from Connecticut into New York. And wouldn’t you know it: she discovers that Jake (Luke Grimes) – her brother’s best friend – just happened to sign up with the same group! What a coincidence!


You know where this is all headed, right? The narrative doesn’t hide its intentions once Helen and Jake meet. Their early bickering only acts as huge blaring signs telling us how they really feel. Luckily, the writing and direction make their journey (both literally and figuratively) interesting enough to keep us tagging along. As is the case with most movies involving characters going on a long trip, Helen and Jake join the hike not just as a means of escape, but of discovery. They’re both in the middle of a personal crossroad, and are given the opportunity to share their feelings openly and honestly. One of the standout scenes features Helen sharing a childhood trauma that is much deeper and moving than we would expect. Kemper’s performance gives the monologue depth and warmth without feeling overly melodramatic. 

For Luke Grimes, his work as Jake is less overt compared to Kemper’s Helen, but just as important. Jake is a bit of an anomaly – sly and sarcastic but with a compassionate undercurrent. At first, we see this in little pieces, like in the way he carries multiple glasses on hand for different situations. He was once a doctor but has left the profession, for reasons yet to be known. That’s probably what draws Helen to him. Through their trip, she disassociates him from simply being her brother’s best friend and sees him as someone she legitimately wants to learn more about. That’s kind of how it goes in a rom-com, isn’t it? Grimes is much softer and vulnerable here as opposed to his work in say, Yellowstone. When Jake’s big secrets are revealed, Grimes’ delivery earns our empathy.  

In fact, the highlight of Happiness for Beginners is in the character work. All the other participants of the hike have their chances to shine. They are given their own unique quirks and eccentricities. Some come to the forefront, such as Ben Cook’s Beckett, the group’s guide. Despite looking like he is not old enough to drive, Beckett is a stern and tough leader, as though the hike wasn’t just for fun but was also a religious experience. Esteban Benito plays Mason – one of the few experienced hikers – whose bravado and arrogance mask his insecurities. Windy (Shayvawn Webster) is optimistic, and her daily routine of finding the good in everything harkens to the film’s title. Kaylee (Gus Birney) seems young and naïve, but a short conversation reveals her to be one of the brightest and most talented of them all. Hugh (Nico Santos) is a comic relief character, but his honesty and wit connect with Helen immediately. Although each person is drawn with specific traits, the narrative is considerate enough to give them dimension. They all feel like individuals and not stock types.  


Stylistically, Wight’s direction is straightforward and efficient. Daniel Vecchione’s cinematography takes ample time to capture the beauty of the outdoors. We get several drone shots over looking the group as they walk over gorgeous mountain ranges and yellow fields. No matter where they are within the forest, sunshine always breaks through the branches for a picturesque visual. The editing (Suzanne Spangler) inserts some nice flourishes. A quick montage showing the equipment needed for the hike has a Wes Anderson-like aesthetic, with the camera pointed straight down on each item perfectly balanced within the frame, the name of each superimposed in big pink letters. This is repeated when the hikers are assigned their own “Trail Names.” Beckett is given “Doogie” (a reference to Doogie Howser, M.D.). Sue (Julia Shiplett) is nicknamed “Chaplin,” because she has taken a vow of silence. Jake is called “Doc,” for obvious reasons, and Helen is, unfortunately, named “Speed Bump,” due to her lack of experience in nature. While these examples are not exactly revolutionary in terms of cinematic language, they add to the fun and lighthearted mood.

Happiness for Beginners doesn’t pretend to be anything more than fluffy escapism. It’s the kind of movie you leave on in the background while doing something else. Every so often, you look up to see what’s happening, and then get right back to work. And you know what? That’s totally ok. Are there better rom-com options out there? Sure, but there’s also a ton that are worse.




Allen is a moviegoer based out of Seattle, Washington. His hobbies include dancing, playing the guitar, and, of course, watching movies.

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