Home Video Hovel- Life is Sweet, by Tyler Smith
Life can be pretty disappointing sometimes. We can be working towards a very specific goal, only to have the rug pulled out from under us. Perhaps we lose a job, or we get sick. Maybe our friends betray us, or a loved one dies. One way or another, everybody eventually gets the wind knocked out of them. The question is what we do then. Do we give up or try again?
This is the question posed to the characters in Mike Leigh’s wonderful Life is Sweet. In it, we watch the story of a middle class family as each member tries to make the best out of their situation. Andy works a job he doesn’t like to pay the bills and his wife Wendy was never able to go to college. Why? Because when they were young, Wendy got pregnant. With twins. Soon, their lives became less about pursuing their individual dreams and more about keeping the family together and cared for.
Some would view this as a tragedy. Certainly Nikola, one of the daughters, thinks so. Her outlook on life is one of constant frustration. She has systematically alienated all of her friends, has no job, and regularly has sex with a guy that she has no interest in getting to know. She has been known to starve herself, claiming that she is just too fat. The fact that she is razor thin speaks to her completely skewed outlook on life. To her, there is no hope, no joy, no happiness.
Natalie, her unassuming sister works as a plumber and couldn’t be more satisfied. She doesn’t necessarily love her job, but it enables her to do the things that she does enjoy, like hanging out with her friends and shooting pool. Natalie has a view of life that couldn’t necessarily be called positive, but is better classified as pragmatic. She understands that happiness doesn’t have to be narrowly defined. It can be whatever you choose for it to be.
What Andy and Wendy learned long ago- and so desperately wish they could teach to their daughter- is that happiness is more of a philosophy than simply a state of being. So many people are miserable, despite having a lot going for them. This isn’t to blame those that deal with melancholy and depression, nor is it to imply that we should all be happy all the time. Instead, it’s meant to bring a certain amount of comfort to those that despair.
When reminded of the sacrifices that her parents made for her, Nikola assumes that she is hated. Her mother cannot correct her fast enough. She is deeply loved, and the frustration that surrounds her is a function of her feeling so unloved. Perhaps it is her fault, perhaps it isn’t. But the film argues that the first step is to acknowledge that love is a real thing that can make even the most hopeless circumstances look a little brighter.
Mike Leigh is a filmmaker of such heart and humanity that he can’t help but wish these characters happiness. Of course, he doesn’t take any shortcuts to get there. He allows scenes to play out as awkwardly as necessary. A major paradigm shift can take a long time, and can be a very painful experience. But Leigh isn’t afraid to sit and watch, rooting for his characters every step of the way. It is a beautiful film, unblinking in its honesty, but unflinching in its optimism.