MIFF Review: Happy Sad Man

Genevieve Bailey (I Am Eleven, Cobbers) returns with her latest documentary offering Happy Sad Man. A film 7 years in the making and chronicling one of the more important topics that we, as a society, refuse to talk about: Men’s Mental Health. Focusing in on 4 gents with different situations, it’s a film whose overall thought provoking message means more than the sum of its parts.

World premiering at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival, Happy Sad Man is the next in a thematic line of films in the program that are tackling Mental health, toxic masculinity and the role of men. As with all great documentaries of our time, this one was borne out of an encounter with Bailey’s short feature subject John, an aging nomadic larrakin, some years prior. John’s flights of boisterous hilarity are matched by his sweeping lows and Bailey herself felt there was more to his story and, indeed, the story of men and how they cope with mental illness, stress, and/or anguish.

On our journey we also meet Jake, a former cinematographer-now-war photographer whose become comfortable in warzones, yet wholly uncomfortable in home life. We meet Grant, an Ex-Kiwi embracing his life with bi-polar disorder. We meet David, a Sydney based artist in the grips of managing an anxiety disorder and, finally, Ivan, a country living support officer for the farming community.

It’s potent and vital stuff in the mix of Happy Sad Man, and its heart is warn very much on its sleeve. The documentarian’s decision to insert herself into certain aspects of the feature are hit and miss, with one particular intrusion late in the piece that almost crossed into showboating rather than actual care.

There is an imbalance in the exposure of the characters. John gets the lion’s share which, given Bailey knows him more intimately, makes sense. David feels under nourished, as does Ivan, and Jake & Grant get decent coverage even though it feels a little disjointed in the delivery.

Nick Huggins score is suitably emotive and impressive with occasional lapses into weep inducing melancholia. There’s definite talent on show, though, it’s very, very good.

Interestingly, not much is really said about stigmatism surrounding mental health, especially in men, and there’s very little mention of the forced isolation that social media has had on the psyche of men (indeed, everybody, not just men). Nor is the message of toxic masculinity driven home enough – it’s touched on but never insightfully examined. A balanced exploration into these areas with some discussions with outfits like beyond blue etc, would only further enhance the message.

Bailey’s made the choice to make this just about them (and her) without more broad topical insertions of contemporary social landscapes. These are the personal journeys of four very different Australians.

Overall, however, it’s what Happy Sad Man leaves you with. And it’s a message that this is something we should all be talking about, none of us should be afraid of, and any one of us will face at some point in our lives. Mental illness is nothing to be scared of, it’s not a dirty word and you’re not less of person if you are living with one. Especially if you are a man.

For that message alone, Happy Sad Man comes home with a feeling that it’s definitely more than the sum of its parts.