Film Review: Happy New YearDark, funny and deeply affecting, <i>Happy New Year</i> revolves around a group of physically and mentally wounded veterans in an isolated residential rehabilitation facility as they try to pick up the threads of their prewar lives.
Newly transferred from Washington, DC's Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to a smaller (read: less expensive) facility, Staff Sergeant Cole Lewis (Michael Cuomo) is scarred both inside and out. Unable to walk, his once-handsome face puckered by burns and soul seared by the deaths of the men under his command, Lewis is a man adrift: His girlfriend has decamped for less troubled waters, his father—a former marine—rarely visits and his deeply devoted mother is a fluttering bundle of nerves at a loss for how to reconnect with her damaged son. There's no doubting her good intentions when she arrives at Lewis' bedside bearing his battered childhood teddy bear Timmy, dressed in fatigues with Lewis' Purple Heart pinned to his chest. Even he sees as much, but as a grown man he needs more than a stuffed toy, no matter what its sentimental value, to soothe his haunted mind.
And against all odds, he finds it at the nameless rehabilitation center in which the majority of K. Lorrel Manning's first feature, based on his own play, unfolds…at least for a while. Once Lewis gets over his initial macho dismay at discovering a shortage of beds has relegated him to the PTSD ward ("You put me in with crazies," he mutters bitterly), he discovers that he and the head cases are more alike than different, starting with roommate Jerome (J.D. Williams), whose sweet nature and unaffected friendliness lie lightly over a mind tied into tormented knots.
There's a lot of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest to Happy New Year, minus Ken Kesey's knee-jerk counterculture rage at any and all mainstream institutions: There's plenty wrong with the rehab facility charged with Lewis' care, but it's more about understaffing and insufficient funds than indifference or laziness. Manning's strength as a writer is that he's more interested in quiet tragedy than finger-pointing or going for the shocking revelation, which isn't to say that Happy New Year's ending isn't a kick in the gut. It is…but it's also totally earned and painfully believable.