Written and directed by Don Tjernagel, Happy’s is a 2021 drama that stars Caleb DeGraw, Clint Boevers, Gus Gustafson and others. Caleb DeGraw plays Landon Ward, a hardworking individual who moves into town after he receives a scholarship. In a twist of fate, the scholarship turns out to be a sham, forcing Landon to rethink his life choices as his work for study program is terminated. However, an eccentric attorney soon enters the story, taking Caleb under his wing and helping him get a job at a local liquor store chain.
Don Tjernagel is a beast, directing one film after another with a pace that even overtakes the frequency with which Bruce Willis puts out low budget action thrillers. Unlike Willis’s outings, each Tjernagel film is crafted delicately; giving importance to characters that grow on you once you get to spend time with them. Tjernagel is a man of great vision and even greater outlook on life, as he creates resonant stories time and time again that critique both the unpredictable nature of our lives and celebrate the power of camaraderie and friendship of the fellow man.
Focusing our attention on Happy’s (2021), the film was deeply personal for Tjernagel. Not only does he know how to craft a story that feels real, but he does also so with honesty and straightforwardness. The result is a film that feels intensely personal and moves the audience to take life less seriously, helping them navigate the highs and lows of existence without losing their wits.
One of the greatest strengths of the film is its characters. From quirky to self-serious and from hopeful to gloomy, the film is packed to the rafters with a diverse group of well-developed individuals who are a joy to experience. Tjernagel comes across as a man who has lived life to the fullest and in his quest, met so many unique individuals that he can conjure up characters that burst out of their seams. Going for a Tarantino-esque feel, Tjernagel knows how to inject life and pizzaz into his characters, aiding the story to reach its full potential.
The closest comparison of Tjernagel’s Happy’s can be made to Kevin Smith’s Clerks. Both films are an exploration of life using a specific backdrop and both efforts have more in common with each other than meets the eye. Like Smith, Tjernagel succeeds due to the earnestness of his characters who come across as real individuals that you and I could meet in the street. It is this strength that gives the film such a poignant feeling, one that I could not shake off long after the film had ended.
The actors are good, and they do well with the script that they are given. Tjernagel has an eye for casting actors that fit their characters and therefore, each actor feels like a perfect fit in the story. Tjernagel’s direction is not only flawless, it aids the narrative pacing of the film considerably. This helps the story move forward effortlessly without being mired in moments that feel like they should have been cut.
Another thing that Tjernagel does is keep the story focused on Caleb alone with other supporting characters being introduced and utilised for the service of his story. The script balances comedy and drama well and each character is unique enough to leave a mark on the audience.
The cinematography is impressive as shots are expertly framed and the black and white colour palette adds a visual aura to the film that expands it narratively. The black and white colour palette also adds a sense of film noir and in the process, elevates the story that the director wants to tell. In addition, it also melds well with the turnaround in fortunes of the main character as he is down on his luck at the start and starts to get his life in order as he progresses further. The sound mixing and sound editing are both great and the choice of music selected also helps the overall feel of the film. In short, all technical aspects of the film remain top notch and every aspect of the production works as it is expected to, resulting in a film that impresses in all aspects.
Don Tjerngal’s Happy’s is therefore a unique film that works on multiple different levels. Hard hitting, nostalgic and poignant all rolled into one, Happy’s illustrates the unpredictability of life and how, sometimes, the best course of action can be to just hold on while forces beyond our control take us on a ride of a lifetime. Funny and melancholic in equal measure, Happy’s is a fantastic effort from Tjernagel who seems to be getting better with each film he makes.
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ABOUT THE DIRECTOR
Don Tjernagel, born and raised in Waterloo, Iowa, has been doing stand-up comedy since 1997. As a young man, Don played football until sustaining a serious injury during spring practice at the University of Northern Iowa. Don decided to try stand-up on a whim in 1997. Not too long after that Don’s popularity led him to do a show in several Las Vegas clubs such as the Casino Royale Volcano Lounge, Bourbon Street Hotel, The Monte Carlo and the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel.
With the start of his first show at the Casino Royale, Don became the youngest comic to star in his own show on the Vegas Strip. In August of 2003, Don wrote a book about his travels through the country as a comedian. The book, called American Infidel, detailed his observations as a comedian and American citizen (mostly writing about his sex life and women in general, while simultaneously expressing his views on the First Amendment). Don started to record his stand-up in 2008 with his first DVD release, Smut. Don continues to record his stand-up on both DVD and CD. His last release was the DVD Filthy which was released on 12 July, 2011.