Movie Review: ‘Pursuing Happiness’ Doc Is Exceptional, One That Deserves Attention

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Adam Shell, writer and director of Pursuing Happiness
Adam Shell, writer and director of Pursuing Happiness

Pursuing Happiness, the newest and latest documentary from Adam Shell and Nicholas Kraft is heartwarming. Shell took to Kickstarter to help fund this documentary of an idea of what is happiness and how can we find it. Through his connections he made with social media marketing, he’s interviewed close to 400 people across the greater United States to find the happiest people in the country and what makes them happy. We’re taken on a journey from New York and Massachusetts to Louisiana and California, to learn about the history of happiness, the biological reasoning behind happiness, and how to obtain happiness. Shell’s documentary isn’t one-dimensional as it may sound, it poignant in its message and is thoughtful and earnest about each subject. Shell handles each interview with care and allows for some of the best purest interviews to unfold on camera. We learn about the history and scientific research of happiness as Shell works his way around the country to discover the true meaning of happiness.

A documentary is only as strong as its concept, characters, and interviews. If your concept is strong but your characters and interviews are weak, the film faults and crumbles under its own ambition. Pursuing Happiness may have a loose concept of trying to understand happiness and joy on a biological level but diving a little in some of the lives of some of the most relatable subjects is key to ensuring the picture is one of merit. Adam Shell is charismatic in his interviews, allowing some subjects to be as candid as possible. Take John for example: John’s an upper extremity bilateral amputee (both of his hands have been amputated) whom lost two wives to divorce and cancer, respectively. He’s candid about his misfortune as well as his relationship with his daughter. Having learned the piano for over half his life before the amputations, John plays a piece he wrote that is moving and shows his vulnerability of having to cope without hands. Almost every subject is handled with this delicate care of easing someone into talking about his or her health of tribulations.

Some may come away thinking Shell is manipulating, playing with the emotions of the viewer to elicit a response of hope. I’m doubtful as Shell comes of as genuine and the film follows suit in its earnestness. For those looking for a film to slap a smile on their face, Pursuing Happiness is the film to consider.

Like a Michael Moore doc, Adam Shell is prevalent through the first half of the film, essentially playing a character. It’s distracting at first until the midway point in the film where he becomes less and less present, which makes for the some of the best pieces of the film to flourish on their own.

Gloria Borges Round 50 in Pursuing Happiness
Gloria Borges Round 50 in Pursuing Happiness

The purpose of a documentary is to provoke a thought or a dialog about its subject matter. While Pursuing Happiness isn’t groundbreaking nor would cause any worldwide movement, it will cause you to look internally to question if you’re truly happy. According to the film, the definition of happiness changes when you transition from a child to an adult as priorities change and your worldview paradigm shifts focus.

John Lawson in Pursuing Happiness
John Lawson in Pursuing Happiness

The lesson the film feeds across is not just to find happiness but to live life in the now and not take it for granted; live generously and care for others and treat others with how you want to be treated. It’s a simple lesson to live by and one the film is exceptional in telling.

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