Joe Swanberg is an indie director who has done a lot of stuff I’m yet to see, but having seen Uncle Kent (2011) and Drinking Buddies (2013), the latter of which being a film I thoroughly enjoyed, I was intrigued when I heard about this one, especially considering it stars an actress I enjoy quite a bit in Anna Kendrick.
Labelled as a “mumblecore” flick, like Duplass Brothers work and previous Swanberg fare, Happy Christmas is a comedy-drama with a unique look that you may be familiar with if you are a fan of these sorts and styles of film, but might seem alien to you if you’re not. Set in Chicago, we meet Jenny (Kendrick), a 27 year old who has just split with her boyfriend. She moves in with her brother, Jeff (Swanberg), sister-in-law Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) and their young toddler son Jude (real-life son of Joe Swanberg, Jude). With the support of her older brother and his family, Jenny intends to move on with her life and attempt to gain some emotional stability and maturity, but soon goes back to her unpredictable and irresponsible ways, which include getting drunk and stoned, passing out and causing problems for her friends and family. Kelly is afraid that Jenny’s behaviour could prove dangerous and problematic for her family, but soon the two begin to bond when Kelly tries to reinvigorate her passion for writing and Jenny provides an energetic support system for her. A snapshot during Christmastime into the lives of a group of people with Jenny as the main focus, we watch as she tries to better herself, meets a guy that she likes and who also sells her pot, named Kevin (Mark Webber) and has an up and down relationship with the people around her due to her volatile nature.
For starters, don’t go into this film expecting a “Christmas movie”. I think some might do this, but this isn’t a movie about Christmas at all, merely an indie drama-comedy that happens to be set during the festive season. The grainy look of the film works in pushing the fact that it is a low-brow and rustic film dealing with life in as realistic and authentic a way as possible. The dialogue feels real and appears to be ad-libbed now and then, creating conversations that feel genuine and reactions that don’t seem rehearsed. I like that about these types of films, you can connect with the characters easier because they feel like real people with real flaws and real problems.
The cast do a very good job here and are all likeable and easy to watch. Kendrick is great as always as the impulsive and reckless Jenny who tries to better herself but seems to always fall prey to the devil on her other shoulder, struggling to avoid falling into her old ways. Swanberg, who did a good job in writing and directing here, plays the older brother, who wants to see his sister grow up and find some sort of focus, in a believable way. Lynskey, as Kelly, is a mother who doesn’t have time for herself and wants to be able to focus on her own projects. Her character is the most layered and the one I enjoyed the most as she tries to make the best decisions for everyone around her while still holding on to hope that she might be able to find a way to express herself as well. With Lena Dunham as Jenny’s friend Carson, a hipster girl with a sarcastic wit, not unlike every other Dunham role I’ve seen, and Webber as Kevin, the pot-dealer who forms a relationship with Jenny, the cast all have a nice chemistry and seem to all blend well together in a world that feels inhabited with a past, present and future about it. I liked that about the film, the feeling that these people were familiar with each other, and that the places they spend time seem to have been lived-in and not mere sets.
This movie might not do it for some people. You really have to like the little-bitty sub-genre in order to get a feel for it. If you like films like The Puffy Chair, Your Sister’s Sister, Drinking Buddies and Tiny Furniture, films which make mention to indie-rock acts and with characters who wear hemp sweaters and sport curly moustaches, then you’ll know what to expect with this one. I’m hit and miss with these types of films. I like some and I dislike others, but I had fun with this one and much of that is to do with the very good performances from a cast that I mostly enjoy, with the exception of Dunham who I have yet to enjoy in a movie. I also feel like some people may not quite get much from the film and feel like nothing really happens, because it is a photograph of a short-time in the lives of these people, and while there are a couple of minor hectic moments, it is pretty elusive and restrained in how it plays out. I liked that, but some might find it sluggish and narrow in what it does.
All in all then, I enjoyed “Happy Christmas” and found it to be charming and entertaining. It’s laid back and subtle, something I find perfect for certain times of the day when I’m in a particular mood, but it might cause some people to question whether or not it was worth their time. The “mumblecore” genre is a strange one and one that won’t appeal to many, but if you have an idea of what you’re walking into then I think you will walk away having had a good time here. Solid performances and strong writing and direction from Swanberg, it is a dramatic and funny look at family, forgiveness and life and that age where you’re too young to be one thing but too old to be another. Well worth a look.