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Happy New Year
Michael Cuomo
Michael Cuomo as Sgt. Lewis in “Happy New Year”

I see a fair number of independent films, but one of the best by far is “Happy New Year,” a movie written and directed by K. Lorrel Manning and starring Michael Cuomo as a returning veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Cuomo is also a producer, worked on the story for the feature film, and gives what I believe is an Oscar-worthy performance as Sgt. Lewis. Earth to casting directors: Put this guy in more projects!

The movie is available on demand as of May 14, 2013 on such services as iTunes,  Amazon, Google, Xbox, and Vudu.

Happy New Year“Happy New Year” is harrowing but emotionally understated in portraying the effects of war on veterans and how difficult it is for them to cope when they return to civilian life. Just like many vets who attempt to hide the psychological scars of war, Cuomo plays Lewis’ emotions close to the vest in most scenes. Yet, we can easily see the torment and confusion in his eyes as he struggles with no longer having full command of his body or his mind.

The film started out as a play produced Off-Broadway in New York. Eventually, they turned it into a short film that received good buzz in the media and at film festivals.

In a phone interview, Manning and Cuomo told me that when they were encouraged to turn their work into a feature-length film, it proved to be a writing challenge.

“The play was essentially the final scene of the film,” Manning said. With that climax as a starting point, he had to work backward to flesh out what happens to Sgt. Lewis before that scene, and he had to add more characters. It didn’t take him long to realize that he needed to conduct more research in order to write a lengthier script.

“I didn’t want any veteran to see this or anyone to see this and say, ‘This is inauthentic,'” Manning stressed. So, they spent nine months interviewing veterans, family members, and military personnel while writing and rewriting the script, which eventually became a 2008 Sundance Writers Lab Finalist.

From there, producer Iain Smith (“Children of Men,” “Spy Game,” “The A Team”) became interested and signed on as an Executive Producer. Manning and Cuomo also approached Mike Scotti about using footage from his documentary, “Severe Clear,” for Lewis’ flashbacks. Scotti was impressed with the accuracy of the film, so he was happy to provide his real life footage for use in the drama.

Happy New Year
A still from “Happy New Year”

Cuomo worked for a month with a Marine Corps drill instructor to prepare for the more expanded role he would take from the stage to the screen. This instructor served as an advisor on the film.

“They created a simulated version of what a marine would go through for boot camp,” Cuomo said. “He was tough. He wasn’t as tough as he perhaps would have been with a regular real marine, but it helped to shape a sense of what it must have been like for Lewis at a younger age.”

The movie begins when Lewis, injured both physically and mentally, returns from combat. I’m sure the training prior to the shoot helped the actor create the vivid inner life that makes his performance so dimensional and believable.

While Manning and Cuomo didn’t set out to make a drama that would serve as a tool for military personnel, they have become increasingly interested in just that. During Q&A’s after screenings, it has been clear that vets identify with the characters in the film, and watching the familiar drama unfold on screen has helped vets open up about their own experiences with post-war trauma.

K. Lorrel Manning
Michael Cuomo and K. Lorrel Manning

The filmmakers are concerned about the statistics, with a reported 22 or more U.S. veterans committing suicide every day. “This subject matter is not on the front page as much as it should be,” Manning said.

“I just don’t know if we are capable of properly caring for those men and women when they come home, and they need it more than ever. We’re hoping that this film intensifies the dialogue and can also be used as some sort of healing mechanism for people who are in trouble, are in need, and just haven’t been able to express that, because one of the statistics says that 25 percent of all combat vets will return home with some kind of post-war trauma. And there are those in the know who say that number is higher.”

Of that 25 percent, statistics also indicate that 54 percent of them don’t report their trauma or seek treatment. While action has been taken to address the problem, the stigma attached to psychological issues keeps many vets silent.

“More money has been spent, more programs have been created. However, the numbers are actually increasing,” Cuomo said. “[Former Secretary of Defense Leon Edward] Panetta has been quoted as saying, ‘We must reduce the stigma about coming forward.’ It’s not enough to have the programs if people aren’t utilizing the programs…. The amount of training that goes into preparing a man or a woman for combat is much greater than the amount of post-war training that they receive in reintegrating back.”

Tina Sloan
Tina Sloan and Alan Dale in “Happy New Year”

“Happy New Year” was screened in New York in a limited engagement late in 2012. “It was a successful first step in what will be a long-term process,” Cuomo said. “There’s also going to be an educational DVD which is part of an initiative to place the film in university psychology programs and perhaps even in some of the new mental health programs that are being developed by the Department of Defense or the various branches of the military.”

The filmmakers are also using innovative initiatives like TUGG.com, a Kickstarter-like model that allows anyone to collect money to fund a screening in their city. Manning and Cuomo are committed to providing post-screening Q&A’s whenever possible – either in person or via Skype.

“Happy New Year” is skillfully shot and realistically acted with a great soundtrack. Mostly, though, it’s a tremendously moving and important story that I can’t recommend enough.

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