Happy Valley

Directed by Amir Bar-Lev

The children of "Happy Valley" were victimized for years, by a key member of the legendary Penn State college football program. But were Jerry Sandusky’s crimes an open secret? With rare access, director Amir Bar-Lev delves beneath the headlines to tell a modern American parable of guilt, redemption, and identity.


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  • ★★★½ review by Matt Singer on Letterboxd

    The moment when Joe Paterno's son chuckles about how he prefers to remain in denial about the things people say about his father on talk radio because if he doesn’t know they’re doing it, it can’t bother him -- and seems totally unaware that that very mindset is the thing that destroyed his father's legacy.

  • ★★★½ review by <Todd> on Letterboxd

    An interesting documentary that focuses on the lingering effects of the downfall of a cultural hero. Well made and balanced.

  • ★★★★ review by Robert Joseph Schneider on Letterboxd

    I've been looking forward to this for a while now. It's pretty much just a bunch of scumbag pissbabies getting angry when people rightfully point out that the protection of human beings is more important than their precious football. The film professor does a good job pointing out that the NCAA coming down so hard on Penn State is a bit sanctimonious and implies that it's an isolated incident and not a recurring problem with the state of sports in this country.

    Also, why is it that when awful white kids riot in the streets it's considered a protest but when people of color protest it's considered a full scale riot of the WTO variety.

  • ★★★½ review by Chris on Letterboxd

    As a sport, I don't like football. It's a little bit of action spread over a long running time. I would take almost any other sport over it. I never grew up with it on (I had hockey in Canada, but I dislike that sport almost as much), I don't live in a football culture. It's just not my cup of tea.

    But all that being said, I love football documentaries. The most interesting thing about football to me is not the game, not who wins or loses, but the importance it has in American society. It is a game with plenty of drama off the field. From the tens of thousands of fans that crowd stadiums and cheer with frightening passion, to the ritualized nature of game day traditions. Football may not be my sport, but it sure makes for enthralling documentaries.

    Happy Valley focuses on the child abuse scandal that erupted at Penn State. I'm not sure that the term 'focuses' is accurate here as the scandal is so large, and affected so many people that 'focuses' makes it sound like the point of view of the documentary is narrow. And it isn't. Happy Valley tries to cover a lot of ground in a limited time, and that is both its strength and its weakness.

    What's on the screen for the most part is compelling. There are attorneys, family members of Joe Paterno, Penn State's much lauded coach, Penn State alum, fans. A lot of people are given a voice here, whether through interviews or just news clips. And it is almost too much. There's the breaking of the scandal, the trial of Jerry Sandusky, prior incidents and who knew about them, the fallout, the official denials, the NCAA response, the reports that were released, the defense of Paterno, the downfall of Paterno, the aftermath, etc. It's all a bit exhausting, as the whole affair is stuffed into a little over 90 minutes. The one thing that is missing is more voices of the victims, except for Sandusky's adopted son. But, for better or worse, the film is less about the crimes and more about a culture that would let these crimes occur. The key issue being did Joe Paterno know about Sandusky's crimes, and how much did he and other Penn State officials know.

    I have no ties to Penn State, so from an outsider's point of view I tend to think how ridiculous it is for so many people to participate in such blind hero-worship, but I'm also aware of how sports bring people together, and how sports figures are held in such high esteem. Happy Valley does its best to address this issue and for the most part it is a very even handed documentary. There are no easy answers. The fact that Paterno died soon after the crimes were revealed leaves a lot of questions unanswered. He did a lot of good for the university, but he made a horrible mistake in judgement that killed his legacy.

    Two stand out moments for me here are when Paterno's biographer talks about how post-Paterno the university and the NCAA was trying to rewrite history by removing the records he set from the books. And second when a protestor stands silently beside the statue of Paterno with a sign calling Paterno a liar, and worse. Their are numerous angry encounters that the protestor has with people who want their picture taken with the statue. There is much swearing and unspoken threats of violence as everyone tells the protestor to go away. In both scenes the message is clear, no one wants to be reminded that their heroes are human. And if Happy Valley seems scattered and overfull, at least it distills that one message clearly.

  • ★★★½ review by Dan Clark on Letterboxd

    An intriguing look into how the idolization of any group can lead dangerous unintended consequences. How great men can do bad things, and how our response to tragedy is often done to make ourselves feel better rather than addressing the actual issue.

    It would be difficult to walk away from this and not feel this community’s reaction was both irresponsible and naive. What solidifies this is a former Penn State student who shows far more distain for the choice of putting player’s names on the back of their jersey’s than the cover-up that ensued. Keeping in mind this reaction is not unique to this student or this school.

    Really though the emotional core of the documentary comes from the story of Jerry Sandusky’s adopted son. A stand in for all the victims, he gives a firsthand account into the atrocious mind games Jerry Sandusky carried out.

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