The Happy Poet uses a vegetarian food cart and a soft-spoken protagonist to reimagine the hunt for the American Dream. A nerd in his late 20s, Bill (played by writer-director-editor Paul Gordon) thinks he’s found the perfect way to get out of debt and make a meaningful life for himself when he buys a used hotdog stand. Setting up in tranquil Austin, Texas park, he determines to sell healthy, homemade food.
He’s inspired by a first shopping trip to his local market, where he’s awed by the abundance and we share his view, the camera panning over ripe greens, tomatoes, and oranges. Of course, his first day out in the park doesn’t go as smoothly as he hopes. Customer after customer approaches his stand and asks for a hot dog, an item that Bill doesn’t sell. He quickly grows discouraged when he realizes that no one is all that interested in buying his eggless egg salad sandwich and other healthy selections.
The Happy Poet‘s slow going to this point isn’t exactly alleviated when Curtis (Chris Doubek) glides into the scene on his bicycle. Still, it’s a relief that he offers Bill some positive reinforcement, raving about his food. When he returns to the park the next day, Bill is further encouraged when he meets Donnie (Jonny Mars), who arrives at the stand on a motorcycle. Their lively conversation is a welcome respite, as is Donnie’s low-key energy, encapsulated in his repeated advice, “Carpe diem, dude!” Always in motion, Donnie offers to help promote the food stand. With input from Curtis, who is lingering in the background, Donnie names the food stand “The Happy Poet.”
As Bill works the stand in the park, Donnie takes to the streets, the camera following his motorcycle as he whizzes around Austin, making food deliveries and handing out flyers. The quick editing in these scenes lends an element of visual excitement to the film, and helps to maintain viewer interest during those long, single-shot scenes in the park, focused on a series of quiet, personal conversations.
Some of the slowest of these scenes feature Bill alone with his new love interest, Agnes (Liz Fisher). They first meet when she stops by his food cart and falls in love with that eggless egg salad. On their first date, they sit in a quiet spot outside a bar and engage in philosophical discussion of the meaning of relationships and work. Essentially one long take that’s occasionally interrupted by brief shots of a band inside the bar, the scene emphasizes Bill’s reserved manner and deadpan humor.
Indeed, the humor in this “all-organic, mostly vegetarian comedy” emerges not so much in the assorted anecdotes about a vegetarian food cart, but in Bill’s deadpan banter with his friends. The food stand itself becomes a beacon for these witty folks, who gather around it to talk, eat, and fall in love. Even on tough days, the glint of the stainless steel cart sitting outside his house is more than Bill can resist. The cart represents his persistent optimism, his desire to pay off his debts and also, to leave behind a dull and unhappy routine and instead look forward to a more energetic, more fulfilling future.
As such a symbol, the cart changes each day, its exterior increasingly impressive and eye-catching. The stainless steel is buffed to a high shine and the hokey, hand-made “The Happy Poet” sign is replaced by a new, professionally made signboard. With every improvement to the cart, the humans who gather around it also evolve. Bill grows into a bona fide businessman, while Agnes, Donnie and Curtis all mature in their own ways.
The Happy Poet shows that this change is realized through economic achievement. It’s a fitting tale for Austin, a city known for attracting entrepreneurs eager to create the next big product or service. Gordon updates the classic story of a hardworking individual who makes his own way in the world. In the process, he makes the argument that getting ahead need not only be a matter of making money, but can also be a socially responsible and emotionally gratifying enterprise.