Review: Happy Christmas

Happy Christmas (2014)
Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Joe Swanberg, Lena Dunham, Mark Webber. Written and directed by Joe Swanberg.

Happy Christmas is the first film I’ve seen by Joe Swanberg, but this guy gets me, and I want to see more of his work. Starring Anna Kendrick (one of my favorite actresses) and Melanie Lynskey in mostly improvised dialogue, this is a good example of a movie that doesn’t really go anywhere. Yet it goes so many interesting places that I look forward to seeing it several times more.

Kendrick plays Jenny, a twenty-something emotional cripple coming out of what seems to have been a very painful breakup. She moves in temporarily with her brother Jeff (Joe Swanberg) and his wife Kelly (Melanie Lynskey), themselves only recently out of their twenties and only recently new parents. It’s unclear where she’s moving from, but Jenny arrives in a cab from the airport, so she is a new part of this young family’s everyday life.

Jeff and Kelly seem to have a solid grip on the parenting. They’re careful but not stressfully careful, and they seem genuinely to enjoy their new duties as mom and dad. Only Jeff, however, seems to have figured out where fatherhood and his career as a film director fit together. Kelly, a writer who has published one novel, hasn’t worked out any time for her own career.

Jenny is the kind of upsetting force that will bring family issues to the fore. Everyone loves her, including the baby, but she occasionally self-medicates in dangerous ways, dangerous for her and for people around her.

Yet this is not that kind of movie. It’s not about Jenny’s drinking or weed-smoking, or about how emotionally needy and self-destructive she is, just as it is not about a young married couple trying to reconcile the needs of career and the duties of parenthood. Swanberg as director uses these premises instead to let his actors explore their connectedness, especially their compassion for one another at this moment in these lives.

Jeff and Kelly can’t undo their parenthood, but they can express their feelings about this moment, and with sympathetic hearts motivated by (I’m interpreting here) basic goodness, try to reconcile conflicting needs. Whether Jenny makes it happen for them, whether they all make it happen for each other, and whether they’ll continue to do so is irrelevant to this movie, something that may disappoint many viewers who expect cinematic closure. The fact that they are doing it in the moment, and that we can see how it happens, is what matters, and this is what makes Happy Christmas beautiful.

Swanberg is (according to his Wikipedia article) a major figure in the mumblecore school. This film has definite mumblecore filmmaking sensibilities, but it’s quite a bit less lo-fi than most movies I’ve seen in the genre. It still has indie written all over it, but despite its improvised dialogue, it doesn’t feel as messy as those other films while it maintains a kind of DIY vibe I enjoy.

Kendrick is an A-list Hollywood force now. I love that she still has room in her artistic life to do a film like this.

80/100
8/10

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