Happiness takes the audience into the high Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, to the last town in that country to get electricity and all that comes with it--television, the Internet--while telling the story of an eight-year-old Buddhist monk more interested in play, and that new television at his uncle's house, than studying at the monastery his mother sends him to as the film begins.
Some will quibble that the story of the boy named Peyangki and the effects of the electrification of his village, Laya, doesn't quality as a "true documentary" given the access enjoyed by director Thomas Balmes and scenes that seem too well-constructed to be true. Ignore those people, and allow yourself to get lost in the stunning photography of Himalayan landscapes and Peyangki's monastery as the boy shows that the "gross national happiness" the king believes will rise with access to electricity might be totally unnecessary to some of the country's children. Although Peyangki is as obsessed with the idea of television as any of his fellow villagers, he is shown finding joy in the simplest forms--archery with his friends, turning cartwheels, sprawling in a field of wildflowers and singing to himself. In the meantime, his uncle struggles with traveling three days to sell a yak for money to buy a television--only to drop the TV from his horse on the ride back home, catching hell from his disappointed wife when he tells her the set is broken.
Happiness is far from perfect, and is somewhat predictable in its view that technology doesn't have the answers for a poor remote village. Peyangki's sister who left for a big city office career falls into work as a nightclub dancer--a canned cautionary tale in a move that is often truly inspiring. Still, the joy of watching Peyangki mature as a monk while keeping his playful spirit is undeniable, and the film offers a glimpse into a world rarely seen by Westerners. It's well worth the time spent delving into Peyangki's world.
Happiness remaining screenings:
Monday, Jan. 20, 3 p.m., Temple Theatre, Park City
Wednesday, Jan. 22, 3 p.m., Egyptian Theatre, Park City
Thursday, Jan. 23, 6:45 p.m., Broadway Cinema, SLC
Friday, Jan. 24, 6 p.m., Holiday Village Cinema, Park City
Saturday, Jan. 25, 9 a.m., Holiday Village Cinema, Park City