Documentarian Amir Bar-Lev doesn’t shy away from
controversial subject matter, and while he clearly has a point of view, he
always tries to provide us with a sense of the Big Picture. I’ve admired his
work in films like My Kid Could Paint That
and The Tillman Story. Now he tackles
the thorny saga of beloved Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, his pedophile
colleague Jerry Sandusky, and the effect their downfall has had on their
community. The material is pure dynamite, but Bar-Lev approaches it in an
even-handed manner, having gained the cooperation of Paterno’s family and
Sandusky’s adopted son.
He also spotlights a handful of individuals who make the
story personal and relatable, taking it out of the realm of headline
sensationalism. By focusing on an articulate student, an artist who’s painted a
celebratory mural, and a lone protestor who chooses to hold an inflammatory
sign in front of Paterno’s statue, Bar-Lev finds ways to draw us into the
environment in which this sad story has played out.
Happy Valley also
asks provocative questions. The NCAA imposed harsh penalties on Penn State and
questioned its priorities, but as one interviewee observes, it’s hypocritical
of that organization to chastise the football culture it promotes on a regular
basis. Our society encourages football fever. Is it realistic to expect people
to renounce their enthusiasm overnight—even in the face of scandalous and
The film doesn’t provide easy answers, but it addresses the
right issues and gives us abundant food for thought.