Despite hitting theaters at the height of summer, Happy Christmas, the latest film from Joe Swanberg, is a somewhat predictable release. Swanberg and his mumblecore compatriots (Andrew Bujalski, Mark Duplass, and Lynne Shelton, to name a few) have mumble-ized the romantic comedy, the horror flick, the bromance, the family drama…it was only a matter of time before one of them took on the holiday heartwarmer. While Happy Christmas embraces the classic Christmas film set-up, it quickly abandons many of its tropes. There are no carolers here, no mountains of presents, awkward uncles, or holiday roasts.
Director: Joe Swanberg
Producers: Peter Gilbert, Joe Swanberg
Writer: Joe Swanberg
Cinematographer: Ben Richardson
Music: Paul Grimstad
Cast: Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Mark Webber, Lena Dunham, Joe Swanberg, Jude Swanberg
Premiere: January 19, 2014 — Sundance Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: July 25, 2014
US Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
The film follows Jenny (Anna Kendrick), an irresponsible, self-absorbed twentysomething who comes to stay with her brother Jeff (Joe Swanberg), his wife Kelly (Melanie Lynskey), and their two-year-old, Jude (Jude Swanberg).
In an otherwise small film, the baby is a stressful addition. Perhaps the appearance of actual high stakes (as opposed to the usual hurt feelings his characters face) is a sign of Swanberg’s maturation, but I found it to be manipulative, not to mention predictable, in a film that is otherwise so patient. Throw a selfish, possibly alcoholic young woman in a house with a small child? I was digging my fingernails into my seat at every instance they were home alone together.
It is the performances, though, much more than the story that signify a Swanberg film. Here, as always, he has assembled a fine team of actors and coaxed fantastic performances from each member. The characters in Happy Christmas are often annoying and inarticulate. Their familiarity keeps them from crossing the line and being plain insufferable. Kendrick is especially good, with her “like”-heavy, giggle-laden speech. In just seconds, Kendrick’s tone and mannerisms establish Jenny’s aimlessness and insecurity.
If Kendrick is the dramatic center of the film, Lynskey is the heart. In a perfect performance, she plays a novelist-slash-mother whose first profession has been slowly pushed off the table by the increasing responsibilities of the second. As Kelly, Lynskey is understated and endearing, a woman oozing empathy and driven by her desire to help even when she’s lost her temper. Her slow, small development is the most joyful to watch, and it is her believability that makes the story believable by association. Lynskey has already been accepted as a great supporting actress, but here she establishes herself also as a great improviser. Mark Webber and Lena Dunham are respectively adorable and hilarious in their supporting roles. Together they provide contrast to Jenny’s mania, a glimpse of where she could or should be at her age.
Despite being a Christmas film in July, Happy Christmas is not escapist cinema. The only character that looks like a movie star—that of Anna Kendrick—is also shown applying lip gloss, blow-drying her hair, and fussing with her clothes. There are no illusions here. Certain jarring edits help maintain a sense of brutality even in the everyday tedium of baths and babysitters. There is drama, but it is a small drama, one inhabited by people who really do not want to make a fuss, who would probably balk at the idea of a film being made of their story.
Happy Christmas is a fine exercise for its actors but not much of a step forward for Swanberg, whose 2013 film Drinking Buddies was a greater achievement. In the end, the rawness in Happy Christmas feels too familiar to elicit a response, a settling into a pattern rather than a telling of a story. I found myself reminded of Lynne Shelton’s Touchy Feely, another film with outstanding performances from an exciting director, and another film that felt like an acceptance of a style instead of an exploration of one.