Director Gonzalo Justiniano's "B-Happy", along with "Machuca" (2004) proves that Chile can compete with Argentina's new wave and avant-garde cinema, though the latter is getting most of the worldwide recognition now.
"B-Happy", whose title is taken from an English phrase written on the blackboard in the lead character's classroom, tells the bleak story of Katty, whose family slowly abandon hers forcing her to rely on her own wits. The movie's narration, never losing focus from the lead character, is completely devoid of any sentimentality and is matter-of-factly and bluntly told in a series of vignettes, which resemble visual postcards. Kathy's father is incarcerated and her mother works in the general store. We get the feeling that Katty doesn't know her father that well, but in a moving scene he proudly relates the history--and resilience--of the family name.
The movie's bleakness is punctuated by the barren Chilean landscape which could substitute as a visual metaphor for the quiet desperation which young fifteen year old Katty must feel. The cinematography is stunningly impressive. Actress Manuela Martelli (Katty) portrays her character's suffering stoicly, with little emoting--her repeated mantra to the world is: "I'm not afraid of anything". She approaches each unpleasant event she is forced to contend with in the same detached, stoic manner. One scene which sticks with me ends with Katty sitting catatonic contemplates her bleak and worsening situation with a sad resignation. Unlike the character Maria for example, in "Maria, Full of Grace" she lacks any kind of carisma or inner conflict about what she does--in fact, she seems to embrace it, with gusto. She eventually must take drastic steps in order to survive, because, as she notes in one scene where she loses her virginity, "The only thing you can control is your first one". Katty is repeatedly victimized by a cruel system and society's unscrupulous, though she soon proves she is anything but a victim. One can't help but feel sympathy for her, but her Martelli's stoic characterization and the director's unique telling of the story-- (in short vignettes, some lasting less than 15 seconds)-- prevents the movie from turning into one cliché after another. Never once does she feels sorry for herself--the only sentimentality she allows herself is keeping a Polaroid taken of herself and her father, with a llama at the zoo. She wishes things could be different but they aren't, so she deals with the cards dealt her pragmatically, without allowing sentimentality to overcome her.
The second part of the movie takes place in the Chilean port city of Valpariso, as Katty sets out on a quest to locate her father, and the movie takes a predictable course without really going anywhere--this is, after all a character study with distinct noirish elements, especially with the gritty Chilean port of Valpairiso featured prominently. A good companion piece to compare this picture with is Argentinian director Maria Victoria Menis' "Little Sky", "El Cielito" (2004)--just as bleak but with the same theme.