When considering the standard cultural landmarks of the peculiar but plentiful subgenre of the boxing movie – Raging Bull, Rocky, Ali – a pattern seems to emerge. The genre seems to invite, by dint of the sport’s popularity, prominence, and propulsive energy, either big emotions or big narratives, whether it be emotional self-flagellation, the archetypal underdog, or a sense of the central figure influencing the national zeitgeist. The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki, surprisingly, deals with all of these ideas to one extent or another, but this entry into the subgenre eschews virtually all sense of grandeur in favor of an intensely lowkey and somewhat light character study.
Winner of the Un Certain Regard Award at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki follows the true story of the eponymous Finnish boxer (Jarkko Lahti) as he trains to fight for the World Featherweight Title, the first world championship bout held in Finland. His training is followed with intense interest by his fellow countrymen, who hold his title challenge as a major source of national pride. Olli is essentially besieged as he attempts to focus on the match – and lose enough weight to become a lightweight – by many, including coach/manager/slightly antagonistic friend Elis (Eero Milonoff), who invites a documentary film crew to film Olli’s progress and continually forces him to attend dinners to accrue sponsors. All the while, he is bolstered by his growing love for his friend Raija (Oona Airola), something frowned upon by Elis.
Much of The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki feels almost clinical in its depiction of this fairly barebones narrative. This isn’t to highlight any particular weakness of the technical work of cast or crew, but there is a great modesty (a trait that Olli possesses to no small degree) in the intentions of the film. As stated before, it traffics not in big narratives or emotions but in the little details, in the loping pace of Olli and how he only seems to explode when he becomes truly focused in the ring. This subtlety of emotion and narrative development doesn’t quite work out in the long run, such is the slightly inert sense of deliberate anticlimax that surrounds the film, but there is certainly much to appreciate.
Foremost among these admirable aspects is the gorgeous directorial hand of Juho Kuosmanen. The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki is wholly photographed in black-and-white 16mm, mostly handheld, and there is a kineticism to the way it tracks and focuses on Olli that is mostly lacking elsewhere. Just as key is Lahti who, with a slightly Denis Lavant-esque physicality, anchors the film with his stone-faced visage. But most of all is the complete sincerity with which all approach this consummately small film and subject. It moves with equal parts grace and gracefulness, paying close attention to Olli’s grappling with fame and love without ever looking down upon his very human decisions. The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki isn’t the most ambitious film nor, frankly, the most intriguing film, but it works with kind efficiency.