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The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki

Review:

A biographical comedy-drama set in Finland in 1962. Minor league boxer Olli Mäki (Jarkko Lahti) gets a shot at the World Boxing Association Featherweight Championship against U.S. contender Davey Moore (John Bosco Jr.). He has to leave behind his small town life and head for Helsinki to train under Ellis Ask (Eero Milonoff), including reducing his weight to the all-important 57 kg needed to qualify for the Featherweight class.

However, while he has the skills necessary to be a champion he doesn’t necessarily have the ambition; he’s deeply in love with his school teacher girlfriend Raija (Oona Airola), and is extremely modest about his chances when put up against his far more experienced American counterpart. When Raija leaves to return to their hometown and get back to her day job, Olli starts to find that the pressures of playing up to the press, the frustrating process of getting his weight down and the constantly overbearing tone adopted by Ellis are getting to him. Is his newfound fame really worth it to him personally?

The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki is a film that never quite takes the route you would expect. Rocky it ain’t. It’s not a spoiler that Olli Mäki was resoundingly defeated in the eventual showdown (he lost after just two rounds) and yet, in its own way, the film has a sweet vibe about it. It’s a highly visual film with images starkly picked out in the B & W cinematography of J.P. Passi, yet some of the finest moments revolve heavily around dialogue and sound. Some scenes vividly depict the less pleasant aspects of being a professional boxer surrounded by a media whirlwind, while others are comedic and touching.

In many ways Olli Mäki is the embodiment of the modest, reserved Finnish psyche. His self-deprecation during a press interview when asked about how he feels the match will turn out (“I’ll see what happens”) dismays Ellis but is hilarious to watch. He’s anything but single-minded as his gaze focuses more on Raija than it does on the cameras. Raija is the undeniable heart of the film. She’s played in a charmingly quirky manner by Oona Airola, who lights up the screen with her sincere smiles and odd eye-rolling expressions. Her onscreen chemistry with the more stoic Jarkko makes us believe and root for their bond as a couple. When she leaves Helsinki the tone of the film becomes a shade or two darker, and eventually Olli has to sneak back to his hometown to see her and bring it back into the realm of brightness.

It’s a film of visual beauty and individual, telling moments. While director Juho Kuosmanen’s camera spends much of its time simply following Jarkko and Oona around in an almost cinéma-vérité manner, there are moments of evident cinematic audacity on display. The repeated scenes of Olli and Raija on riding a bike together are a truly blissful image of coupling, captured with a singular grace via crane shot. A tracking shot of children spinning around a stage in toy carts brings an energy into the film following the bleak preceding moments depicting Olli training without Raija’s companionship. An expressionistic hotel scene with shadowy figures from the press towering over the diminutive Olli truly captures the overwhelming, intimidating vibe of such a moment when seen through the eyes of someone unaccustomed to the newfound media circus. There’s also some great use of sound near the end during the fateful boxing match, again to a cinematically truly overwhelming effect.

Towards the end we also get micro-cameos from the real-life Olli and Raija Mäki in a nice but not self-consciously overstated scene (it only became obvious after paying attention to the end credits). That generally sums up the film as a whole: its character is as modest as the real-life persona it depicts. There’s little in the way of dramatic fireworks (even the climactic fight, with all of its in-the-moment impact, doesn’t have any lasting dramatic resonance beyond its brief time onscreen) but it’s highly satisfying in its small pleasures.

Runtime: 92 mins

Dir: Juho Kuosmanen

Script: Juho Kuosmanen, Mikko Myllylahti

Starring: Jarkko Lahti, Oona Airola, Eero Milonoff, John Bosco Jr.

Rating: ☆☆☆☆

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