In 2011, in the small town of State College, home to Penn State University, shocking revelations unfolded about the college's longtime assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky is found guilty of 40 counts of child sex abuse. In this documentary, locals are interviewed and asked to opine as to whether head coach Joe Paterno or the Penn State Administration knew about the abuse all along.
SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL: In Happy Valley, convicted child sex abuser Jerry Sandusky’s adopted son Matt says that 90 percent of the time, Sandusky was the father every kid wanted. The other 10 percent, though, involved behaviour instinct places beyond criminal. Himself a victim of Sandusky’s predations, Matt made the distinction to help explain how a child might be held in the thrall of such abuse. (And an adult: when the story first broke Matt, now in his 30, denied having been victimised.) But the idea that one part of a sexual predator can be divided from the other seems to have helped protect Sandusky, a former assistant coach of Penn State University’s football team, across decades of child molestation.
Those familiar with the story will find nothing new for large stretches [of the film].
Rather than re-present the heinous details of the case that led to Sandusky’s 2012 conviction on 45 counts of child sexual abuse, Happy Valley examines the story’s effect on the Penn State community. A town named State College exists to be what it is. This State College also is what it exists to be, having bred territorial fervour into the bedrock and the bones of its inhabitants. That fervour, as director Amir Bar-Lev (The Tillman Story) shows, concerns football above all else. Bar-Lev examines the 'culture of reverence" surrounding American college football as it was crystallised and tested in State College, also known by the equally archetypal nickname of Happy Valley.
Its broad ambitions tend to scatter Happy Valley’s focus. Aside from Matt Sandusky, none of the victims are heard, though Matt’s description of how Sandusky found and groomed him, under the auspices of a charity for underprivileged boys, establishes a predatory pattern. Much time is spent with the family of Joe Paterno, the legendary coach of the Penn State football team, held in contempt by many for failing to act more forcefully when confronted with evidence of Sandusky’s crimes. Paterno was fired in the wake of the scandal, and died only months afterward. An old man by then, he was a venerated father figure in the community ('St. Joe," they called him), an institution inseparable from the one for which his football team generates US$60 million in annual revenue.
Assembling coverage of the scandal, Bar-Lev traces the fault lines that emerged between the media and the people of State College, who moved to protect Paterno. Those familiar with the story will find nothing new for large stretches of Happy Valley, and as presented some of the confusions unleashed by the scandal lack the context necessary to extract their significance. Bar-Lev returns, for instance, to one inarticulate, pro-Paterno, pro-football student whose disillusionment with the school is tough to fathom and even tougher to care about. A more sustained dramatic metaphor involves the fate of a campus mural of the school’s illustrious figures: the painter first moves to erase Sandusky, later adding a halo to Paterno’s image. Later still the painter removes the halo, then finally puts a reconciliatory white rose in Paterno’s hand. The people of State College follow these events breathlessly, if with less rancour than they do the removal of a statue of Paterno and its surrounding football-inspired frieze.
The erasures, the fines, the investigations, and the suspensions that followed Sandusky’s convictions and a report indicting the college administrators who took no action on serious allegations against their former employee are Happy Valley’s final unhappy subjects. A final reflection on the role of football in the American imagination feels both persuasive and a little too simple. Bar-Lev shows us anonymous face after screaming, possessed painted face in the crowds of thousands for whom Saturday games are a way of life. Footage of a Penn State students rioting in the wake of Paterno’s firing connects that ritual mindlessness – arguably a necessary release – to havoc and destruction, the end of reason. The decision to punish Penn State football for the Sandusky scandal (with suspensions and a massive fine) is also suggested to be part of a reactionary cycle, a culture of extremes. Incapable of reckoning with the damage done, Happy Valley, its past scrubbed clean, emerges as this story’s final victim.