In Life During Wartime, a warped sequel to Happiness (1998), Todd Soldonz surprisingly side-steps his patented masochism and bitter pessimism to find a genuine character study of great depth, watching tormented characterizations come to grips with their conflicted lives while dissecting the past traumas rooting their pain. The film begins ten years after the venomous ending of Happiness, with Soldonz casting new actors to play the key roles of the Jordan family. It’s a strange, hypnotic jaunt into cinematic revisionism, one where sequences seamlessly overlap, painfully repeat, and effortlessly fade away like blown out memories.
The opening sequence between Joy (Shirley Henderson) and her husband Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams) mirror’s the previous film’s intro, but this devastating interaction carries more weight mainly because Soldonz never descends into acidic rage during the confrontation. The pain, the heartache, the exhaustion, mostly remains repressed beneath a facade of normalcy. At this point in his career, Soldonz seems to understand the power of silence, those waiting moments in between the tent poles of hope and disappointment, and he finds so much poignancy within this spectrum. Soldonz continues this motif throughout the film, no matter if it’s the haunting sequence between pedophile Bill (Ciaran Hinds) and his now grown son, or when Harvey (Michael Lerner) hopelessly tries to console Timmy (Dylan Riley Snider) during a particularly vulnerable moment. Soldonz becomes a master at keeping characters sequestered by the invisible boundaries of perception and reality, while ghosts of the past become ghosts of the present.
Watching Happiness and Life During Wartime back-to-back helps clarify why the repellent venom of the first is far less convincing than the sequel’s deft attention to humanity. But taken as one long time-line of familial trauma, it’s hard to separate the two since they are so obviously connected by the tissue of regret and weakness. Soldonz specifically morphs the dire and flat colors of Happiness into a vibrant splash of Florida sun and California gloss, providing a visual trajectory to pace alongside the various character evolutions. This visual schematic, along with certain heightened sequences where dreams and phantasms play a key role, make Life During Wartime a more nuanced and fateful cinematic experience, one less dependent on shock and awe and more focused on the changing faces of a generation at war with themselves.