Little Rock’s Fifth Annual Film Festival
I recently attended the burgeoning Little Rock Film Festival in Little Rock, AR. While the event itself was exciting, and there were a number of good movies, one film stood out immediately as a highlight of both the festival and the year. K. Lorrel Manning’s Happy New Year is a masterpiece just waiting for a distributor. Beautifully shot and wrenchingly acted, it tells a dangerous story without sentimentality or condescension. If you get even a remote chance to see this somewhere, make the drive; it is well worth your time.
An invisible epidemic
The suicide “epidemic” amongst our youngest group of returning veterans is rarely ever mentioned; I’ve seen headlines about it in a few newspapers here and there, but in reality its an issue largely ignored by those who aren’t directly effected by it. We, the public, have the perception that our modern sci-fi battlegrounds produce fewer American casualties and they do—in the field.
“If you look at Vietnam, you had about 3-1 in terms of those injured and survived versus those who died. Now you’ve got at least 16-1. A lot of the country hasn’t really realized that a lot of injured soldiers and Marines have come back and have to fight this, or live with this for possibly all of their lives.”—Bob Woodruff
Even though the current two wars’s combined casualties are almost 20x higher than the Persian Gulf—which holds the record as least deadly war for Americans—they’re still roughly 20x smaller than the figures from Vietnam, and earlier wars had even higher casualty counts. However, the contemporary wars far surpass their historical counterparts in terms of injured survivors, and according to an exhaustive CBS News analysis, in 2005 120 soldiers were killing themselves each and every week; that makes veterans twice as likely to commit suicide as non-veterans that year, and the numbers aren’t getting any better.
The blind eye we’ve turned towards these casualties on the home front extends to Hollywood as well. In general, Operations Iraqi Freedom/Enduring Freedom have been grievously underrepresented in terms of feature films. This is despite the fact that Afghanistan is our longest running war ever and Iraq started almost a decade ago. Recently we have started to see some more examples, mainly documentaries, but compared to past wars where Hollywood built the myth as it happened, these most recent wars’ mythologies have been created by the media alone.
Tragically, out of those few Hollywood movies about the war, none of them genuinely look at the intense issue of PTSD and suicide. The only ones that do—In the Valley of Elah, Stop-Loss, a few others—touch on the issue peripherally and with the superficiality of any other generic plot element.
Enter Director K. Lorrel Manning
Manning’s first feature film, Happy New Year, helps to amend this sin of omission and shed light on the inconceivable struggles that go on in the surviving veteran’s mind. One of his earlier works that sounds fascinating is an Off Broadway play called A & J Rule the Universe that tells a prelude to the Columbine Massacre; so he definitely has an affinity for controversial, emotionally charged subject matter.
Happy New Year tells the story of Staff Sergeant Cole Lewis (Michael Cuomo), a wounded veteran returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. His paralyzed legs and crippling burns land him in a Veterans Hospital, but they’re short on beds and put him in the psychiatric ward—where they keep the guys with PTSD. During the course of the film we learn that he probably belongs there more than anyone else, and we watch as a bond as intense as that on the battlefield grows between him and the other survivors.
The whole group was great. All of the interactions, joking, hating, loving, they were all conveyed with richness of emotion and authenticity.—A Soldier’s Perspective
I’ve seen critics mention One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest in regard to the atmosphere at the hospital, but it reminded me more of a hangout movie like Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo. Early in the film there is some collective rebellion (like Cuckoos), but the movie is largely just them sitting around and hashing out their traumatic experiences. The camaraderie between the men is so palpable that it sucks you dangerously deep into their world, and the whole movie rests on the bond established between Lewis and his roommate Jerome. Manning’s roots are in the theatre, and it shows in the incredible group dynamic he evokes.
The film bears a superficial resemblance to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, in its array of damaged characters, but it’s better than the usual angry young man in the hospital piece for a couple of reasons. First of all there’s Cuomo’s intense lead performance…—Philip Martin from the Arkansas Democrat Gazette
And Michael Cuomo
Despite Manning’s emphasis on their collective struggles, Michael Cuomo’s haunting performance as Sgt. Lewis comes to dominate the entire film. Cuomo was involved at almost every stage of production; he even served as a co-producer for the movie. It began Off Broadway as a short play encompassing the last few minutes of the completed film. Cuomo played the same character in the original, and that time he spent getting deep into Lewis’s head paid off. In a Q&A after the screening he told us about wheeling around New York City in a wheelchair for hours and going through a mini Boot Camp; all this Method effort shows in the way he speaks, holds his head, and gestures. I’ve rarely ever seen such a nuanced dramatic performance that didn’t veer into sentimentality. Cuomo’s performance hints at layers of emotional subtext under Lewis’s confident exterior.
There’s a restrained theatricality to the entire film that embodies the nature of the disease it explores. Moving back and forth between moments of dark introspection and jubilant outbursts, the film feels bipolar in the best possible sense, and like a veteran suffering from PTSD, you never feel like you’re seeing the entire picture. There’s a beautiful scene where the husband of one of Lewis’s deceased squadmates visits him at the hospital seeking closure. The scene is filled with unanswered questions and emotional dead ends, and it’s the power of small, insignificant moments like this that vault the film into the stratosphere. There are no easy answers with a disease like PTSD, and Happy New Year doesn’t pretend that there are.