Breathing Happy: A Heartbreakingly Hopeful Christmas Carol

Image Courtesy of Breathing Happy Film

Every time I watch Shane Brady’s Breathing Happy, I find myself hypnotized by a different scene. During my first viewing, it was a magic trick during the film’s finale made engrossing by a magnificent elongated single-take and the fear of ambiguity for a well-written character. While still a stunning scene, this most recent watch brought a heavier fascination to Dylan’s (Shane Brady) fatalist monologue, telling the audience the secret behind a magic trick, and breaking the magician’s code in the process, to explain that life, like magic is rigged. I first saw the film as a part of Chattanooga Film Festival, where the film won the Audience Award for Best Feature, but I don’t think it affected me in the same way it seemed to during this watch. Tis the season, I suppose, and as a fever dream version of A Christmas Carol, it’s easy to be swept up in Breathing Happy’s reflective ambiance. As we approach the end of the year and take a mental inventory of 2022, confronting our hardships and taking pride in our accomplishments, it became hard not to relate my own relationships, hardships, and mental health dilemmas to aspects of the story. 

Dylan sits smoking poolside in festive attire in Breathing Happy
Photo provided by Breathing Happy film

Like Dylan, I too get mired in my own problems and the more despairing characteristics of the world, which, if any of you have read some of my Horror and Society pieces, you’ve already probably assumed. However, as the adolescent version of Dylan’s sister Lily (Evee White) quickly combats, there are ways to outwit a rigged system. It requires patience and persistence sometimes, problem-solving 101, but it’s easy to feel lost in the things you can’t control, which makes something as simple as focusing on taking a deep breath extremely helpful.  

Breathing Happy itself is about drug-addicted Dylan, forced to spend his first sober Christmas alone. Through an ethereal nightmare of Dickensian influence, complete with all manner of ghosts and the haunting claustrophobia of poor decisions. Dylan experiences his past, present, and future through the eyes of his mother (Helstrom’s June Carryl) and his sisters (The Walking Dead’s Katelyn Nacon, 6:45’s Augie Duke, and Clowning’s Brittney Escalante) as they exhaust themselves while trying to get Dylan clean over a series of Christmases.  

While the title can be interpreted as the inhalation of various substances, it also incurs duality to another time in Dylan’s life, a time when he was less anxious and afraid and able to breathe a little easier. As if brought by the Ghost of Christmas past, Dylan is drawn to the nostalgia of the Christmases from before his Dad died while dealing with the emotional weight of being paralyzed by panic and unable to speak at his father’s funeral.  

Dylan looks puzzled while wearing a festive holiday hat in Breathing Happy
Photo provided by Breathing Happy film

Brady does an excellent job at handling the addiction elements of the film as a lively back-and-forth between Dylan’s struggle and the family affected by his disease. Dylan is a likable character, so empathy comes naturally. With extreme reverence to the shame, embarrassment, and melancholy of personal disappointment, nuanced moments show us how, even when Dylan is experiencing the euphoria of a high, he is bound to his addiction, especially when it comes to the holidays, as he nearly crosses the one-year sober mark over-and-over only to eventually relapse in Christmases past. 

I won’t lie to you and advocate for eeriness at any point throughout Breathing Happy. The film is more of an atmospheric, left-of-center drama than an outright horror film. It has these rewarding moments of touching intimacy, complete with moments of humor throughout. However, Dylan’s dread-soaked fever dream contains ghosts of a different nature, disguised as Dr. Seuss and grilled cheese loving doors and cell phones, and featuring the talents of Something in the Dirt’s Benson and Moorhead and The Lazarus Effect’s Sarah Bolger. Dylan’s ultimate goal is to unlock a golden door that appears in his living room, and as the story progresses, we understand why he’s both curious and afraid of what lies on the other side. 

As a first-time feature-length director, Brady has serious chops. The first thing viewers will tend to notice is how the film is shot and framed like a home movie. The warm glow of the lighting provides a hallucinogenic haze over what is clearly something happening outside of reality. His cast is stacked with talent. While Dylan is the main focus, it’s the strong supporting female ensemble that provides vulnerable and passionate performances and much of the reason why the movie works.  

Dylan's family surround him outdoors by a table with a cake on it.
Photo provided by Breathing Happy film

To describe Breathing Happy as a beautiful film is a drastic understatement of the brilliance of Shane Brady’s poignant Christmas story. It’s hopefully heartbreaking, incorporating the misery of loss into a season that demands our merriness and joy. It’s rare for a film to speak as nihilistically as this one and remain sincere. Particularly when typical holiday genre films speak more cynically toward the difficulties of the season. Brady approaches the film with tenderness, remorse, and a wistfulness of personal heartache. An account of a man stuck in boyhood from a poorly dealt hand that he’s never fully recovered from and hasn’t had the strength to fully accept it.  

The movie carries a similar tone to the black cloud and weight of dysfunctional family drama hanging over the holiday depicted in Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale. I’d encourage anyone who enjoys that film to give Breathing Happy a shot. It’s a film that deserves to be seen, brimming with the kind of substance that will move you to tears while retaining the optimism of It’s A Wonderful Life.

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Written by Sean Parker

Living just outside of Boston, Sean has always been facinated by what horror can tell us about contemporary society. He started writing music reviews for a local newspaper in his twenties and found a love for the art of thematic and symbolic analysis. Sean joined Horror Obsessive at it's inception, and is currently the site's Creative Director. He produces and edits the weekly Horror Obsessive podcast for the site as well as his interviews with guests. He has recently started his foray into feature film production as well, his credits include Alice Maio Mackay's Bad Girl Boogey, Michelle Iannantuono's Livescreamers, and Ricky Glore's upcoming Troma picture, Sweet Meats.

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