Vince is having drinks with a friend on the evening of his birthday. But it’s not a happy occasion for him — he’s been having doubts about his girlfriend.
It’s not that he doesn’t love her — he does. But he’s starting to think that she’s having an affair at work. When he heads out to meet up her, things look more ominous than he ever thought as he faces the surprise of his life.
Writer-director Mustafa Toby Eck’s short dramatic thriller is a very pared-down, compact narrative — essentially a glimpse into one character’s state of mind and life, and then a discovery that illuminates and reveals just where he or she stands. But confident craftsmanship and a deft build-up of suspense elevate these minimal storytelling elements into a compelling, tense thriller that lands a big impact.
The writing works efficiently and economically, adroitly laying out the psychological groundwork through well-observed dialogue and performance. At first, it seems like a case of too much telling and not enough showing. But as the film unfurls, we realize that the subject of the film isn’t Vince’s relationship, but his frame of mind, and the small details he’s weaving into a larger, more complex narrative of his girlfriend’s faithfulness and love.
Vince has a growing suspicion of his girlfriend, and actor Dustyn Gulledge’s performance walks the fine lines between concerned suspicion and a darker-tinged paranoia — one that is parlayed into a well-constructed sequence of suspense that pulls viewers in through the sheer visceral power of filmmaking, from the edgy, nervy camerawork to the intelligent editing. It holds viewers’ attention beat-by-beat, slowly but inexorably building up tension — until it lands a big wallop of an ending.
“Happy Birthday” is a very focused piece of work, with a noir-influenced sense of style and a sneakily exemplary execution of its thriller bona-fides. It begins like a moody relationship drama, with its focus on Vince’s internal landscape of thought and emotion and an emphasis on writing and a certain precise intimacy in the performance.
But as its film grammar shifts smoothly into stylishly-rendered suspense, it moves into thriller territory, with its emphasis on the unknown, the paranoid and the suspicious as it shapes the very way Vince sees and experiences the world. Such uncertainty and instability can warp the way we perceive words, actions and even the very people we love — sometimes even to the point of no recognition, and sometimes to ruinous consequence.