By Patrick Feutz
Want to see boxing fans’ jaws hit the mat? Show them Juho Kuosmanen’s The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki, a sports biopic that charts the days leading up to the titular real-life boxer’s infamous 1962 World Featherweight Title bout with reigning champ Davey Moore. Just don’t tell them about the scene when two days before the big fight, Olli stops in his tracks to fly a kite he found in the woods when he should be trying to make weight. Because this isn’t your average sports flick about rivalry, pride, or overcoming the odds. Nor is it the kind of biopic full of dark secrets and personal tragedies that fuel its subject’s professional success. Instead, it’s a delightful, totally artistically free look into the private life of a boxer who shies away from promoting the biggest fight of his life thanks to falling in love. You could call it the anti-Rocky if you weren’t afraid none of your sports-fan friends would want to see it, but then again, this is a movie that caters to the kind of people who eat it up when their idol claims the proudest moment of their life is when they got married.
Aside from his talent for boxing, small-town boxing sensation Olli Maki (Jarrko Lahti) is introduced as the epitome of the down-on-his-luck everyman. His car won’t start in the first scene, he’s dropped down to featherweight class so his manager Elis Ask (Eero Milinoff) can arrange the big fight, and he hunches, making his short stature all the more glaring, particularly when placed next to a leggy model for a photo shoot. Kuosmanen shoots in grainy black and white 16mm to achieve a simultaneously fresh and aged look, capturing the story of Olli’s ennui in a serendipitously period-specific New Wave style that emphasizes the bare, unfiltered truth, a choice made stronger by the presence of an in-film documentary crew who stage shots and hilariously applaud the awkward acting skills of Olli and Elis.
Elis, played with a hidden desperation by the imposing Milinoff, can’t imagine what Olli could be upset about, and he misunderstands the uplifting effect made by Olli’s new girlfriend, Raija (Oona Airola). A distraught Raija gets it wrong too, leaving town to let Olli focus and bringing the story’s central conflict to a head. Lahti plays the heartsick Olli as a slouching, rudderless mess, unable to pretend to play the hero, and realizing too late that a pro boxer’s lot in life is as a source of other people’s entertainment. All three struggle with trying to live up to expectations, and their angst is thrown into relief against the dour visage of Finnish moneymen and the easy professionalism of Moore and his entourage. None are more uncomfortable in their own skin than Olli, though, who sees his passion for boxing hijacked by big business, and any care for his personal needs discarded.
All of that isn’t to cast a shadow over things. The Happiest Day is positively lighthearted and charming, a jaunty, verite portrait of a soul in torment that makes it easy for us to sympathize with our navel-gazing antihero and laugh while he single-handedly and unintentionally deconstructs the blustery power politics of professional sports swirling around him. Lahti and Airola are sweetness personified as a bicycling, stone skipping new couple, overflowing the measure of humanity needed for Kuosmanen to endear us to them while proving that a sports movie can mean nothing about sports and a biopic can have nothing to do with biography. By the same token, the movie reveals more about the sport and the man than any truer-to-fact telling could, and uses its finale to impart a more intense catharsis than a fistfight between two men ever could.
The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki is screening in the UICA Movie Theater June 30th - July 13th 2017.