Producer and director Ron Williams began his film as an attempt to follow his ex-wife, Nancy, as she entered drug rehab. While filming, Nancy’s daughter, MaCall Peterson, was involved in the accidental overdose and death of her friend Amelia Sorich and the subsequent attempt to hide the body. From this development, the filmmaker realized the scope of the movie had changed considerably. He began to wonder if there was a relationship between Utah County residents’ reputation for overly blissful happiness and the struggles that addicts in Utah face. Thus was born the documentary Happy Valley, a title meant as a play on the nickname for Utah Valley. Although much of the movie does not take place in Utah Valley, the title and publicity poster conjure up caricatures of the stereotypical Utah County resident—determinedly and obliviously happy.
This is not a drug addiction story like those we see in VH1’s Behind the Music, where overindulged rock stars are torn apart by excessive partying. The strength of Happy Valley is in hearing a beautiful young girl with a Utah accent say, “All I remember is teaching her how to shoot up.” These stories are compelling because the people in them are so familiar. We see those who are suffering from the consequences of drug abuse as brothers and sisters and not as statistics with accompanying mug shots or obituary photos.
Of the two of us reviewing the film, this reality came as no surprise to James, who has worked as a pharmacist for twelve years. He has seen many respectable men and women humbled by addiction to legal and illegal drugs. He and others in the medical field recognize the common faces of drug addiction: the friend next door, a member of the ward, a grandfather with silver hair and a winning smile, the popular athlete in high school. Such individuals in Happy Valley let us into their lives and provide likeable smiles for us to put onto the face of drug abuse in Utah.