19/31: Happy Valley
"We all want to think that we live in a better world than we do."
This comment from a Penn State professor comes at the end of Happy Valley, Amir Bar-Lev's documentary about the emotional and cultural brush fire that seemed to engulf State College, PA three years ago when the crimes committed against children by Jerry Sandusky — and beloved Penn State football coach Joe Paterno's alleged failure to act sufficiently forcefully on the knowledge he had of these crimes.
It's a good line, and the film has a number of moments like that: good "gets" that, in the end, just kind of sit there, not clarifying or adding to our understanding of what happened, and why. There's a guy standing next to the statues of "Joe Pa" with a handwritten sign calling Paterno a "pedophile enabler," getting into verbal (and semi-physical, occasionally) dust-ups with tourists and alums who've come to visit their hero, and he gets a couple good lines off, like "You don't like free speech; g'bye. Go to Russia, they don't like it either." Matt Sandusky, Jerry's adopted son and one of his myriad victims, explains that getting taken in by that family meant he'd have a family, meant "going somewhere you'd have food, first of all." Joe Posnanski, author of Paterno and all-around insightful guy, is no less articulate and skilled at texturizing than he usually is. I just don't know what any of it's for. To explore the reaction of the Penn State community to the attack on not just its beloved football program, but its ethics and morals? To assess whether the rest of the world indicted Nittany loyalists as co-conspirators, or whether it should have? To bemoan the power of sport to warp a society's values?
Happy Valley may have set out to do all those things, or Bar-Lev may just have wanted to "talk it through," on film, for himself. Whatever the case, the documentary revisits the Sandusky affair without finding much new; it's the first to feature Matt Sandusky's participation, stalled until the eleventh hour thanks to legal proceedings, is a new perspective, but while he's an enormously sympathetic and smart narrator, he only points up Happy Valley's inability to pick an angle and stick with it — because you've got a bunch. You've got the late Paterno's family, feeling hard done by all around, and not without reason, but not necessarily helping their patriarch's memory by exasping that he "did what he was legally required to do." You've got Matt Sandusky. You've got that student super-fan who rightly notes (if for the wrong reasons) that a pep rally converted to a prayer vigil for Sandusky's victims feels "fake." You've got Posnanski, stuck between a rock and a hardcover. Any one of these would have made a fascinating deep cut; as it is, Happy Valley feels more like Bar-Lev just didn't want us to forget that this happened.
That's okay. He's right. We shouldn't forget that this happened; that's one of the reasons it happened and could happen again, the nauseated horror we feel, the discomfort caused just by the sight of Sandusky's nervous squinty stupid grin, the simple primal urge to look away and think about something else. Happy Valley is a pretty good sit, not boring, but "don't turn away from this" isn't a story; it's an order, and it's a bit too tall for Bar-Lev.
Tags: 31 Days 31 Films Amir Bar-Lev documentaries Jerry Sandusky Joe Paterno Joe Posnanski Matt Sandusky movies