“In order to remember, you first need to forget.” That’s the slogan for Adina Istrate’s short film Terminally Happy, which within its modest running time raises some fascinating questions of loss, remembrance and science. Within minutes you are ushered into the private, intimate (and near-futuristic) setting of a family home, and it is implied that something is up between the mother Evie (Emma Campbell-Jones) and the father Louis (Alastair Mackenzie). Their conflict centres around that most mundane of parental concerns; making sure that their son Oscar (William Stagg) eats his breakfast and goes to school.
Such a seemingly insignificant concern feels like it stands in place for something much larger, and as becomes clear by the end this is not the minor parent-child tiff that it seems like on the surface. The opening shot, of a pill violently fizzing and dissolving in a cup of water, alludes to where the film is going but you are still taken back by the context of this ordinary family situation.
It looks ordinary anyway but feels anything from it. The score puts you on edge – not because there is the chance of some jump scare or a mysterious death, but because it helps to tighten the knots in your stomach as the creeping feeling of unease takes over. The whole movie is a transfixing and unsettling experience.
The lead performances from Campbell-Jones and Mackenzie are solid, but it is Istrate’s vision and control that completes Terminally Happy. The creation of an atmosphere that has such feelings of nervousness and almost dreads is the result of her screenplay and how the whole film feels like some kind of controlled experiment. Far from being a problem, it is a style that compliments the issues and the themes of the film, which transcends its modest running time to feel a lot longer and more important than thirteen measly minutes would suggest.
For such a short film, the dialogue is surprisingly sparse. This only serves to keep you guessing until the final moments, where there is so much conversation you share in Louis’ struggle to distinguish the words from each other. It highlights the contrast between, as becomes clear, two essentially different worlds, the world of remembering and the world of forgetting.
Flawless it is not. Some context from the outside world regarding what plays out in the home would be nice. It becomes clear that there is something to do with pharmaceutical and scientific testing, but it is not clear who is involved or why. It borders on the confusing for sure, but this fails to take away from what is a fascinating little movie.
TERMINALLY HAPPY (Short Film) / CERT: TBC / DIRECTOR: ADINA ISTRATE / SCREENPLAY: ADINA ISTRATE / STARRING: ALASTAIR MACKENZIE, EMMA CAMPBELL-JONES, WILLIAM STAGG / RELEASE DATE: MARCH 2ND