Low-key, understated, Finnish, these aren’t adjectives that normally spring to mind when discussing movies about boxing. But all of them apply to Helsinki-based director Juho Kuosmanen’s black-and-white breakout from last year’s Cannes Film Festival, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki. Inspired by the true story of Finland’s most famous brawler—a small, wiry featherweight who challenged American Davey Moore for the World Championship belt in 1962—The Happiest Day is almost the anti-Rocky (or Raging Bull or Ali or…pick your razzle-dazzle Hollywood fight flick). For the most part, that willingness to scale down and not go for the big, dramatic knockout ends up being refreshing. But it also occasionally results in a lack of dramatic urgency.
Finnish actor Jarkko Lahti stars as Olli Mäki, a quiet, hard-to-read man who holds the hopes of his nation on his narrow shoulders. As the title match approaches, he’s consumed by the usual distractions most boxers face (making weight, glad-handing promoters, posing for endless photos) and one unexpected one: he’s fallen in love with Raija (the radiant Oona Airola), a humble young schoolteacher from his rural hometown. His tightly-coiled manager, Elis (Eero Milonoff), doesn’t approve. Romance and a lack of focus are the last things Olli needs on the eve of the biggest moment of his life. Plus, Elis has his own pressures piling up (an unhappy wife, money troubles). The combination of distractions doesn’t bode well for our underdog hero.
Shot verite-style on inky, 16mm black and white, which gives the film the look of a long-lost French New Wave import, The Happiest Day is a small-scale, bittersweet boxing story where boxing seems to be almost beside the point. Instead, it’s the quiet, simple moments between Olli and Raija that stick with you, whether he’s giving her a ride on the handlebars of his bicycle on their way to a country wedding or skipping stones across the smooth surface of a lake. Olli isn’t a blood-thirsty bull who rages; he’s a conflicted young man standing atop a pedestal who happens to be afraid of heights. B