Amir Bar-Lev’s documentary “Happy Valley” examines the Penn State campus amid the Jerry Sandusky scandal and emerges with a sobering portrait of entrenched corruption.
That’s not corruption in the sense of legendary coach Joe Paterno and university administrators allegedly sweeping their knowledge of Sandusky's conduct under the rug, although the film does chronicle those charges.
Rather, it’s a sort of communal corruption that Bar-Lev finds in Happy Valley but might well have been anywhere across America, in which an obsessive mythologizing of a man and his athletic program compromises the moral compass.
The movie has its share of interviews — with everyone from Paterno’s widow and kids to Sandusky’s adopted son Matt — but otherwise adheres closely to the school of direct cinema, with the filmmaker observing a town in crisis. There are student riots, tearful rallies, angry outbursts at the media and a general sense of disbelief and unease at the shattering of a false innocent ideal.
This is a difficult subject, grappling with so many unsolvable questions centered on Paterno’s legacy and our own complicity in fostering the sort of culture that allowed the dangerous Sandusky to escape prosecution for so many years.
The film aspires to evoke such an intrinsic component of the American condition from so many different angles that it occasionally seems unfocused. There are many different directions to take this material and Bar-Lev opts for all of them.
But it’s an essential documenting of where we are, and it leaves you with a lot of necessary, troubling feelings.
Documentary by Amir Bar-Lev
Playing at Village East Cinema and on VOD