‘Happiness for Beginners’ Review: A Netflix Movie Fit for the Hallmark Channel

'Happiness for Beginners' is a shrug of a movie with a side of self-reflection.

Ellie Kemper as Helen in Happiness for Beginners. Barbara Nitke/NETFLIX

Happiness for Beginners makes for the kind of movie you could turn on while doing your weekend chores, knowing full well that you will not be paying any attention to what’s happening on screen. There are some pretty shots of nature and a few stabs at humor, but don’t be mistaken—this movie is background noise at best.

Directed by: Vicky Wight
Written by: Vicky Wight
Starring: Ellie Kemper, Luke Grimes, Nico Santos, Blythe Danner, Benjamin Cook
Running time: 104 mins.

Written and directed by Vicky Wight, the film is an adaptation of Katherine Center’s popular novel of the same name. Happiness follows Helen (Ellie Kemper), a recently divorced stick in the mud who loves note-taking and list-making. Fed up with being fed up with herself, she signs onto a beginner wilderness hiking course, where she and a pack of strangers will trek through the Appalachian mountains together. Helen’s goals are simple: she wants to become closer to nature, rise from the ashes of her divorce-slash-midlife crisis like a “freaking phoenix,” and she wants to win a certificate awarded to the most valuable hiker on the trip. Her wish for self-improvement becomes complicated, though, when her younger brother’s best friend Jake (Luke Grimes, of Yellowstone fame) also comes along for the hike. You can guess where it goes from there.

Despite being a Netflix (NFLX) original movie, Happiness for Beginners gives a distinctly Hallmark Channel vibe. A white thirty-something woman makes a bold choice to get her groove back, only for that burgeoning self-assurance to be propped up by a new beau. Like a Hallmark movie, the romance between Helen and Jake is sterile, with feeble attempts at flirting doing nothing to set off a spark between the two. At one point, another member of the hiking squad says that “tree bark has chemistry with [Jake];” frankly, the tree bark has more chemistry than the actor, and a mushy log gets more action than him.

The movie also makes its budget (or lack thereof) known, with questionably mixed ADR that gives some conversations a weird, mashed-up feel. Any interior scene is stagnantly shot and flatly lit, though the woodsier moments make good work of shooting the natural world. Clearly, a large chunk of time and money went to overhead drone shots of the mountains, the forests, the highways leading to the mountains and forests—the movie takes joy in these many, many screensaver shots.

Kemper does her best with the fairly empty role of Helen, as the actress can’t help but be at least a little charming. Helen is self-sufficient but not particularly capable of advocating for herself, and Kemper shows that frustrated passivity well. Her performance can’t make up for the lapses in the script, though, with so much of Helen’s characterization being relegated to dense exposition. During an early scene where the hiking crew is doing icebreakers to get to know each other, she launches into an extended monologue about her divorce (and several major life events that go unmentioned for the rest of the movie); later, Helen and Jake’s relationship is fleshed out in dialogue as each character repeatedly asks the other if they remember a certain anecdote from their shared past. In a flashback, Helen’s brother (Alexander Koch) tells her that she and her husband aren’t a good fit and that they shouldn’t have gotten married—at their wedding reception! Happiness for Beginners would have done well to learn from the age old rule of writing: show don’t tell.

Ultimately, Happiness for Beginners is a shrug of a movie with a side of sweet self-reflection. Helen goes on the hike to find herself, and she sort of does, but the movie doesn’t give her much of a self to start with. It’s a bland story executed blandly, with comedy that doesn’t make the cut and a romance that’ll leave you sighing in frustration rather than swooning.

Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.

‘Happiness for Beginners’ Review: A Netflix Movie Fit for the Hallmark Channel