Amir Bar-Lev’s Happy Valley is about hero worship, first and foremost. When the Jerry Sandusky scandal rocked Penn State University to its core in 2011, it sent a tight-knit community that viewed themselves as a notch above the rest in terms of morals and decorum into a downward spiral. For anyone that followed the story at the time, Happy Valley will contain a lot of familiar information in its first half. It’s once Penn State fires long-time head coach and football legend Joe Paterno that the film turns on its side, examining the ramifications of a football culture that ruled all.
For those unfamiliar, Jerry Sandusky was a long-time assistant football coach at Penn State. Investigations into sexual abuse claims against him by young boys began in 2008 (suspicions can be traced back to the late 90’s). When all was said and done, Sandusky was convicted on 45 of 48 counts of sexual crimes against children. He was sentenced to 60 years in prison, easily the rest of his life, but maintains his innocence to this day. After the scandal, the top-down shake-up at Penn State began. Key figures were forced to step down. Few thought Paterno, who had reported the claims of another coach said to have seen Sandusky with a boy in a shower at a team facility to his superiors, would be removed as coach. When he is, all hell breaks loose.
Bar-Lev gets interviews with all the key players, including Paterno’s wife and sons as well as Matt Sandusky, Jerry’s adopted son who initially denied he had been abused. His story would change and he became available to prosecutors in the case against his father. One of the most revealing interviews comes from a student who viewed the scandal as more of a roadblock to the team making a Rose Bowl appearance than anything involving actual human beings. Happy Valley is at its most compelling when the talking heads are off-screen, however. Bar-Lev and his crew capture the chaotic protests following Paterno’s firing. A news van was toppled. Students assembled outside his home, chanting his name through all hours of the night. People congregated near his statue at the stadium, and at a mural where a halo was painted above his head. He was a God in Happy Valley, as was football. The residents and fans did not know how to handle it. They turn on each other, with those supporting Paterno labeled by one man as “pedophile enablers” and anyone endorsing the firing as a heretic.
With the Sandusky case closed, the remaining questions pondered by Happy Valley all concern Paterno. What did he know and when did he know it? Did he do enough? Was he a scapegoat by the powers that be? Did he participate in the cone of silence that internally enveloped Penn State leading up to the scandal? Paterno died of cancer in January of 2012, so we will never know all the details. Once viewed as untouchable and the pinnacle of class, Paterno’s legacy has undeniably been affected by Sandusky’s crimes and the subsequent fallout.
As an account of these events, Happy Valley is complete and very level-headed. It’s not especially revelatory, but does an excellent job of chronicling and portraying a series of events that changed a town forever. There is a somber tone to the whole film, not only because of Sandusky’s unspeakable acts, but also the bursting of a football bubble that many thought impossible. It’s contemplated in the film that these events led to the loss of Penn State’s innocence. Like most of what took place in Happy Valley in 2011, it’s sad but true.
Studio: Music Box Films
Length: 98 Minutes
Rating: NR (Contains some language and sexual references)
Theatrical Release: November 19, 2014 (NY) / November 21, 2014 (LA)
Directed by: Amir Bar-Lev
Written by: Amir Bar-Lev