Happy Valley
Music Box Films Home Entertainment // Unrated // $29.95 // April 7, 2015
Review by Tyler Foster | posted June 6, 2015
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In November 2011, the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse case broke at Penn State University, where the former assistant football coach was indicted on 52 counts of molestation. Sandusky was not just a prominent figure in the local community, but a big name in the world of college football, and even ran a charity organization aimed at youths. The scandal became a national story, and resulted in a $60m fine from the NCAA as well as 23 settlements. Sandusky, being the perpetrator, was immediately labeled a monster, but the real battle lines were drawn over head coach Joe Paterno, a real figurehead in the community, and a beloved sports hero.

Happy Valley is not a recounting of the Sandusky case itself, but the way the community, which held football up as part of its DNA, reacted to the many revelations and developments in the case. Director Amir Bar-Lev does his best to stay objective, and approach the story from all sides -- Paterno's widow Suzanne, two of his sons, and Matt, one of Sandusky's sons, were all interviewed for the documentary. Yet, it's hard to look at the footage and dismiss the side of the story that suggests Penn State's relationship with football may be unhealthy, as fans refuse to even consider the possibility that Paterno may have played a part when Sandusky makes for such a simple target.

Following the firing of Paterno as the team's head coach, the students of Penn State rioted, flowing into the streets in droves to chant Paterno's nickname, "Joe Pa." One interview subject recounts watching the students -- mostly white, 20-something sports fans -- tip over a news van and attempt to get the gasoline to ignite. He comments that for him, it was the moment "state college lost its innocence," inadvertently implying that the tipping of a news van might've been a more severe moral blow for the university's reputation than the actual sex scandal. Another young fan is interviewed, talking about the vibe after the scandal. When another spectator tells him to tone down his chants against the other team on the first game after Paterno's exit, he remembers saying, "I don't care what happened, it's always about that! This is Penn State football!" The five minutes of qualification that "of course I feel sorry, but..." which follow this comment speak for themselves.

Although it's hard to be sympathetic to crowds of people who, just as the NCAA accused, clearly place football ahead of other interests, Bar-Lev does manage to create a limited amount of sympathy for Paterno. While it's almost impossible for to imagine a valid reason for Paterno not to take his information to the authorities, he was clearly a man who helped bring a community together and did a number of great and valuable things for many of the kids who played for him. Bar-Lev also has footage of Paterno and Sandusky together doing some sort of interview, and there is a sense that Paterno is tolerating a man he doesn't like because he believes Sandusky is earnest in his desire to open a charity. Paterno's biographer also recalls Joe lamenting that he should've done more shortly before his death. None of these things absolve Paterno of the potential responsibility, but Bar-Lev does his best to paint a picture of a good man who was faced with a decision and happened to make the wrong one.

When it comes to a crime like Sandusky's, it is hard to imagine the discourse being anything but extreme. Two of Bar-Lev's most fascinating moments center around art relating to Paterno. A local artist who painted a mural featuring Sandusky and Paterno shows up to paint Sandusky out of it, and then wrestles with his feelings again when the Freeh report holds Paterno accountable. Later, at the statue of Paterno that stood outside the stadium until it was eventually removed, a single protester stands next to the statue all day with a sign accusing Joe of being an enabler while fans attempt to take photos with it. Whether or not Bar-Lev's film will bring anything to the debate is questionable (he seems too reluctant to have a point of view, which feels like a cop-out), but this microcosm of the overall debate is fascinating, boils humanity down to instinct and emotion.

An evocative image of the Penn State football field (with the paint in the end zone identifying it clearly visible) serves as the cover for this DVD, with the title placed at the top over a void of clear blue sky, emphasizing the irony of the title. Another image of the valley appears on the back. The case is a transparent Amaray case, and there is no insert./p>

The Video and Audio
As with many documentaries, the footage in Happy Valley is a mixture of new and archive footage, from TV news, from old film reels, and of course, fresh digital photography done for the movie. Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, the new footage is crisp and colorful, without the modern "roughness" of some HD films -- aliasing, harsh colors, or banding. Sound is a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack which is, unsurprisingly, mostly designed to handle conversations with subjects, and the film's low-key score. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are included.

The Extras
One extra is included: a radio interview (21:07) with director Amir Bar-Lev and host Andrea Chase, from the PRX radio network, courtesy of KillerMovies.com. Bar-Lev talks about what it was like being in Happy Valley with a camera in the middle of the community's retaliation against the media, handling the balance of what is in the film and what isn't, and the overall way people deify media figures (when the interview was recorded, Bill Cosby's scandal had already broken (or re-broken), and Bar-Lev cites it as

Happy Valley is an interesting movie, with some fascinating subjects and evocative observations of the reaction in the community, but Bar-Lev struggles to find an angle in not having an angle. The film effectively captures two extremes, but it's hard to argue that anyone (myself included) will walk away with the film leaving any real impact on their impressions of the case. Not without its merits, but a rental is advised over a purchase.

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