Happiness Runs qualifies as one of the most grueling and viscerally unpleasant American movies of 2010. One could argue that this is the effect for which first-time director Adam Sherman is striving; after all, it would hardly be appropriate for this material -- a dark drama about U.S. teenagers caught up in a sex-and-drug hippie cult -- to sound joyous or ebullient notes. But this movie isn't simply grim; it's a colossal, redundant bore from first frame to last -- like being on an interminable dirge with cruel, sad, and misguided lowlifes whom we can't wait to get away from, and never want to see again.
Mark L. Young stars as Victor, a teen whose eccentric and apparently wealthy parents (Andie MacDowell and Mark Boone Jr.) long ago fell into the grip of a sociopathic cult leader named Insley (Rutger Hauer). Apt with mind control, he engages in a Rajneesh-like practice called "running," which involves hypnotizing women and luring them into positions that will enable him to take full sexual advantage of them. He also makes the cult members docile and pliable with a never-ending supply of mind-altering drugs, and has apparently set up a system that enables him to pilfer untoward amounts of money from bamboozled disciples such as Victor's folks.
Young's first mistake lies in his inability, or unwillingness, to place this material within a broader societal framework. A montage of murky Super-8 footage of the 1960s counterculture opens the picture, and the film gives us the impression that the onscreen events take place around 20 years later. This would situate the drama in the late '80s, and that realization makes the LSD, barbiturate, and free-love saturated cult (which openly perpetuates endless aberrant behavior among minors) seem wildly anachronistic. It also raises numerous broader questions about how this "society" can continue to exist and function in the surrounding world, apparently without any sort of interference from authorities. Similar scenarios occasionally manifest themselves in real life, of course, but as presented here, the cult's existence practically demands further elaboration and social contextualization to retain credibility.
The central narrative thrust of the film involves Victor's infatuation with a naïve young Insley disciple named Becky (Hanna Hall) who has returned to the throes of the cult after a lengthy period away; her father is dying of metastasized cancer, and she longs to be by his side. In the process, she falls back into the delinquency of the cult, and thus begins careening down the road to self-ruination. Victor plans to leave as quickly as possible, but his emotional and physical involvement with Becky (who tells him, as she lies naked on the bed, "You can do anything to me that you want") overcomplicates the situation and delays his departure.
That two-dimensional scenario represents the extent of the movie's narrative complexity, and as a result, very little of interest actually happens over the course of the picture. For much of the film's duration, Victor actually recedes into the background, emerging only occasionally to fret and moan and wring his hands about how he plans to eventually leave and take Becky with him. One wishes that he would hurry up and depart, but that, of course, would end the story much sooner. Young supplants the limp Victor-Becky narrative thread with one endless sequence after another of young cult members engaging in sex with multiple partners, abusing drugs, and occasionally engaging in cruel and sadistic acts such as an instance where a young man douses a live cow with gasoline and sets it on fire (the details of which, Sherman mercifully keeps offscreen). The writer-director pads out the remainder of the running time with wild and occasionally disgusting hallucinatory images, such as a dream sequence where a geyser of blood shoots out from the top of Becky's head.
The movie is horrendously, unbearably depressing. It apparently wants to shock and anger with displays of wild delinquency, but we grow so desensitized by the relentless self-abuse and excess depicted onscreen that Sherman and co. succeed in thoroughly alienating the audience. We also feel utterly disgusted by the characters and driven beyond the point of pity -- to such a degree that when an irreversible tragedy finally manifests itself in a concluding scene, we could scarcely care less.