Happiness Adjacent: low budget, lower quality

Happiness Adjacent (Rob Williams, 2018) is one and a half hours of glaringly objective proof that you can’t just get on a cruise with an iPhone 3 and make a feature-length movie. (Okay, fine, an iPhone 6, but that doesn’t make it any better.) The film explores a story reminiscent of gay p*rn: a straight married man (Kurt) who ends up falling for a gay guy (Hank) on a cruise. Hank narrates the film in voiceover, either as an omnipotent voice or in conversation with a towel in sunglasses which represents his friend Brian (no really), who abandoned him last-minute to sail the gulf of Mexico alone.

It turns out low budget sometimes does mean low quality. The iPhone itself is not the core issue (though the iPhone 6 wasn’t even the newest iPhone in 2017, when Happiness Adjacent was filmed); Lady Gaga’s Stupid Love video was shot on an iPhone, but she at least had good lighting and an understanding of cinematography. I found myself thinking the footage looks like the videos you take on holiday ー because that’s basically what it is. Some unfortunate shots even had an air of hostage video about them.

Shot on iPhone

Britney Line Time: Put your love all over me / Here’s my invitation, baby / Come feel my energy

I am 100% certain that there was not a professional light to be seen on this cruise ship. Instead, we get fluorescent overhead lighting in the ship’s communal areas; cool-toned to the point of being clinical lighting in night-time cruise ship bedroom sex scenes; and even sunlight *shudders* FROM BEHIND in some outdoor scenes, making the foreground unromantically hazy and dark. Photography 101: don’t put the sun behind your subject.

Overhead lighting

I am 99% certain that no one was mic’ed. Thus, wind intruded on outside shots, sound levels going up and down when camera angles changed. You could also hear background voices throughout any indoor scenes. One scene in a jacuzzi had to be subtitled because the bubbles were so loud. This did make me think “why would you shoot a scene in the jacuzzi anyway…?”, but then if you start asking the obvious questions like that then you’ll never stop. Is this realism? Technically, yes, I suppose it is. (Then again, if they were going for realism, I would recommend at least a reference douching before a character bottoms on clean white sheets.)

Overall, it says a lot that I was impressed that the cameraperson managed to stay out of shot when they panned near a mirror.

Top Tip: Watch the trailer and you’ll understand what I’m on about

The credits didn’t surprise me when they announced that this film was crowdfunded. For a project of this scale, a full feature length was ambitious to say the least. Should Guest House Films have spent the crowdfunded budget on a better filming set-up and refined the story into a short film? I didn’t donate, so it’s not for me to judge, but I think it would have produced better ー or at least more palatable ー results. Maybe all the money went on buying tickets for the cruise? In some scenes alone in his cruise ship bedroom, Hank talks to Brian and to his therapist (as towels), which, while bizarre, made for an interesting dynamic. Maybe these scenes could have formed the basis of a story framed as Hank’s one-man play? Look, I’m clutching at straws here.

Unromantic lighting for an unromantic sex scene

There was one inconsequential scene shot in the ship’s library (do cruise ships often have libraries?) which made me think that the filmmakers saw the ship had a library and decided to write a scene around it. It bears repeating: you can’t just go on a cruise with an iPhone and decide to make a film. Amazon genre-identifies Happiness Adjacent as “Arthouse”. That is an extremely bold claim.

Would you call this arthouse? Really?

The acting ranged from the upper end of competent to actively bad. Ian Dick as Kurt was at the lower end ー far too much gulping. The chemistry between Hank and Kurt was shaky at best; to give them the benefit of the doubt, lines like “What’s your last name? I love last names, they always tell such a story” are hard to make sexy. The relationship is a vehicle for problematic messaging too, with Kurt telling Hank that gay men are gay becuase they understand each other as men and because women are too demanding.

Biggest Gay Mood: having sex with someone and keeping their underwear

This leads us into my main story gripe: quite honestly, the plot read like a mediocre gay p*rn film, only without the sex (did I mention that I have seen p*rn that was better shot than this?). Unfortunately, this leaves the best actor here in an unlucky position. Rachel Alig as “the wife” Kate actually has some convincing emotional range, which only makes her cliché-ridden character’s life seem that much sadder.

The gay p*rn archetype which Kate represents was parodied hilariously by Emma Stone on SNL

Misogynistic gay p*rn tropes permeate the construction of Kate’s character and story: as the only female character, she only serves to get in the way of the gay relationship as a bitchy and annoying female presence. She does at least get some kind of redemption arc; though she is ridiculously obtuse and oblivious, this ends up manifesting itself in an ultimately more tragic way when we learn that she only pretends not to notice her husband’s gay affairs so she can keep the threads of their marriage together. Sadly, she is granted little screen time to explore this, spending the first half of the film as off-screen vomiting sound effects (Kate gets seasick). As an award-winning actor who wrote her own IMDb bio (legends only), Rachel Alig seems too ambitious for this project. I guess there’s nowhere much to run away to once you get on that cruise ship.

Kurt and Kate

I don’t know how many different ways I can find to tell you that this film is bad. With the story quality of the preamble of a mediocre p*rn film and the picture quality of your auntie’s holiday snaps, we’re not even adjacent to anything ressembling a watchable film. If Rachel Alig couldn’t run away from Happiness Adjacent, then at least you can.

Click stars to view criteria

I watched Happiness Adjacent on Amazon Prime, but it looks like it has just been taken off. Thank God.

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