There's a section of the prestigious Cannes Film Festival outside the main competition called Un Certain Regard. Translated literally as "a certain view," this section was created to spotlight nontraditional films with unique perspectives.
That description surely applies to the winner of last year's Un Certain Regard prize, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki. Co-written and directed by first-time feature director and Finland native Juho Kuosmanen, the film tells the "based on true events" story of the featherweight boxer and Finnish folk hero of the 1960s who scarcely fit the mold of the modern sports star. Leave it to the famously reserved and self-effacing Finns to reinvent the boxing movie with the tale of a gifted but love-struck pugilist suddenly unconcerned with the requirements of an impending championship bout.
Light-hearted and often very funny, Olli Maki matches its subject matter by developing an almost giddy quality — not unlike the experience of new love — though the feeling is tempered by Finnish reserve. The film lingers on life's small moments to paint a fresh portrait of a distant time and place.
Olli Maki first introduces us to the small-town lives of the modest boxer (Jarkko Lahti) and his girlfriend Raija (first-time film actress Oona Airola). They soon find their way to the large city of Helsinki, where Maki can train with boxing coach Elis Ask (Eero Milonoff) for a title fight with American sensation Davey Moore. The pressures of modern celebrity begin to close in on Maki, from the obligatory schmoozing with sponsors and socialites to the microscope of the international media and the film crew engaged by Ask to document the boxer's certain rise to stardom.
In another film, all those distractions would be ripe for easy satire. But Kuosmanen is more interested in Maki's unexpected feelings for Raija. When Maki makes the mistake of confessing his obsessive state to Ask, the coach responds with, "Can you deal with this ... thing?"
Kuosmanen develops a visual style that makes Olli Maki far more engaging than it otherwise might be. Shot on high-contrast, black-and-white 16mm film, Olli Maki practically screams "early 1960s" without relying on overbearing period detail to make the point (the story takes place in the fall of 1962). The visuals easily recall numerous French New Wave classics from that era, such as Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless and Francois Truffaut's Jules and Jim. It's remarkable how an evocative look and feel can transform the experience of a film.
Those visuals also point to another way the film manages to upend expectations of the boxing biopic. Even Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull — arguably the greatest boxing film of all time, and another work that gleefully defies genre convention — found its full expression in brutal-yet-beautiful scenes of graphic violence inside the ring. When Olli Maki's big fight finally arrives, it almost seems an afterthought. But that's fitting for a boxing film that's actually about finding happiness on your own terms when the odds are against you.