Happy Valley

Having built an impressive career doing context restoration work on some of America’s most sensational scandals, documentarian Amir Bar-Lev won’t want for good material in the coming years. This year his unhappy task was to revisit Happy Valley in Pennsylvania. For a long while, if there was any place in America where the culture of football seemed unambiguously constructive, an improver of young people’s lives, it was at Penn State University. Then in 2011 it came to light that a coach there had sexually abused dozens of boys, and his boss, a community hero, hadn’t stopped him. The swift, awful fallout from this bomb included what one observer in Bar-Lev’s film calls a “shaming spectacle,” ostensibly intended for constructive catharsis but woefully inadequate for that purpose. What’s clear is that being devastated didn’t quell the Penn State community’s yen for quasi-religious ecstasies, nauseating though they sometimes are. Although occasionally lacking in expository clarity, Happy Valley nonetheless proves a fine procedural report on the formation of uncritical groupthink. No one gets a last word, per se, but some manner of wisdom endures in the comment from a local muralist who says removing Joe Paterno’s halo was the hardest thing he had to do. What’s most affecting is Bar-Lev’s steadfastness in using movies as a means of nuance-appreciation. He keeps faith in a human capacity for transcending the sensational. The odds may for now seem long against that in Happy Valley, but here this complex portrait is anyway.