Before she was a foul-mouthed Twitter sensation, Ellen Barkin was an actor, and as Sam Levinson’s first feature reminds its audience, one whose diminished screen profile has left movies poorer. In Another Happy Day, she’s a twice-married mother of four who returns to her parents’ Annapolis estate for her eldest son’s wedding. The attendant family reunion provides the usual array of personality clashes and uncloseted skeletons, but what initially seems like a fairly benign catalogue of sitcom dysfunction—a sullen teenage son (Ezra Miller), a sister who makes miniature cowboy outfits for dogs—gives way to spousal abuse and self-mutilation, an awkward transition that nonetheless yields some genuine discomfort.
Levinson has fielded an impressive lineup for his debut (his father is Barry Levinson, which doubtlessly smoothed the way): Ellen Burstyn as Barkin’s embittered, imperious mother; Thomas Haden Church as her ex-husband; and Demi Moore as Church’s possessive second wife. But all-star casts don’t always make for harmonious ensembles, particularly with a novice behind the camera. In one confrontation, Burstyn plays her withholding matriarch close to the vest, while Barkin is left to gesticulate nervously in empty space, her mannerisms flooding to the surface as if trying to fill the void.
Barkin’s anxiety peaks over the return of prodigal daughter Kate Bosworth, and particularly her reunion with the father she hasn’t spoken to in seven years. As he was using his raised fist to urge Barkin to leave, Church forcibly split up Bosworth and her older brother, leaving Barkin to raise Bosworth and two sons from her second marriage. The movie doesn’t discount the possibility that Church may have done the boy a favor—Bosworth’s body is covered in scars from years of self-inflicted wounds, the 17-year-old Miller is a substance addict who’s been in and out of rehab multiple times, and Barkin’s youngest is a misfit with mild Asperger’s—but it’s clear whose side we’re meant to be on, if not always why. Levinson stuffs the movie with so many emotional cross-currents and minor revelations that it’s hard to keep them all straight, but the movie works the audience’s nerves with enough determination to get under the skin and stay there, a sensation that comes awfully close to an earned emotional response.