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Film Talk: Looking Back – A father and son against the world in The Pursuit of Happyness

If the greatest films are those which hurt and then heal us, this one must be among the finest ever made.

Will and Jaden Smith starred in 2006's The Pursuit of Happyness
Will and Jaden Smith starred in 2006's The Pursuit of Happyness

Directed by Gabriele Muccino, 2006’s The Pursuit of Happyness (the ‘Y’ a deliberate typo, to which we shall return) is a heartbreaking biographical drama in which Will Smith proved how truly good he really was.

Taking on the role of homeless salesman Chris Gardner, Smith starred alongside his son Jaden, who was making his movie debut as Gardner’s own son, Christopher Jr.

Based on the best-selling memoir of the same name, the flick follows Gardner’s nearly one-year struggle of being homeless while taking care of his young boy.

With an emotive and powerful plot as well as the board being set for the magic of real-life father and son chemistry, The Pursuit of Happyness had the potential to be something very special. But would the screen version capture the tragic beauty of Gardner’s memoir? And would the box office takings reflect a job well done?

Hungry to carve out a living for himself in early-1980s San Francisco, hard-working and determined bone-density-scanner salesman Chris Gardner finds himself on a perpetually up-hill struggle. Left broken when his wife chooses to abandon him and their son, the financially-pressed father is forced to take care of his five-year-old boy alone, and while simultaneously trying to make ends meet.

Plagued by circumstances that become even more challenging and cruel, Chris and his son lose their apartment and are forced to spend their nights in homeless shelters and even a train station restroom. But can the earnest Chris force their luck to turn?

With an opportunity ahead of him to earn a full-time position at a prestigious stock brokerage firm, Gardner must defy the hand he has been dealt and reach for the almost impossible. Will the devoted father succeed in being able to build a new life for himself and his son, or will his pursuit lead to only further heartache?

Earning $27 million during its opening weekend, The Pursuit of Happyness was released to positive reviews, with Smith’s exceptional performance and the raw, emotive weight of the tale being told receiving very high acclaim.

The hoped-for chemistry between Smith Sr and Jr was palpable, and was nothing less than the core contributor to this masterpiece’s success.

Will Smith’s performance was stellar, earning him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor (an award he would not finally lift until this year), and young Jaden’s turn foreshadowed some strong work to come.

Returning to the elephant in the room that will have my editors positively itching, the unusual spelling of ‘happiness’ in the film’s title comes from a mural that Chris Gardner saw on a wall outside the daycare facility his son attended. And indeed, ‘Y’ not? The English language is not normally to be messed with, granted. But when a flick turns out to be as compelling and powerful as this one, surely even the staunchest police of spelling and grammar can let it go.

A triumphant tale of struggle and perseverance, this one will have you crying for days, but smiling for years. Well done Messrs Smith – After Earth may have fallen a little flat, but this joint effort will always remain invincible.

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