HAPPY CHRISTMAS Movie Review
R..•..78 min...•..Comedy, Drama
July 25 (LIMITED) ..|.. June 26 (VOD/Digital)
WRITER/DIRECTOR: .Joe Swanberg
Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Joe Swanberg,
Mark Webber, Lena Dunham, Jude Swanberg
SYNOPSIS: A budding novelist and her film director husband, Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) and Jeff (Joe Swanberg) and their two-year-old son live a peaceful existence in Chicago. But when Jeff’s irresponsible younger sister, Jenny (Anna Kendrick), comes to live with them after a breakup, things start to change. Jenny begins a rocky relationship with a baby sitter-cum-pot dealer (Mark Webber), and she and a friend, Carson (Lena Dunham), instigate an evolution in Kelly’s life, as her career and her relationship with her husband begin to grow in new directions. But are they welcome ones?
Despite its title, Joe Swanberg’s Happy Christmas is not really a ‘Christmas movie’ in the traditional sense—nor is its story entirely happy. But that’s OK, because as Swanberg’s unique, naturalistic filmmaking style shows, life is not an entirely happy enterprise.
Starring Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Mark Webber, Lena Dunham, and Swanberg, Happy Christmas is a genuine and multilayered meditation on the relationships of family, friends, and lovers. Through witty dialogue and a frequent undercurrent of surprising candor, the film explores the notions of happiness and fulfillment as they pertain to individuals and partners.
Swanberg’s naturalistic cinema is the product of a no-frills visual aesthetic and improvisation: Happy Christmas’ primary set is Swanberg’s own house (tiki-themed basement and all), and the film has no formal script—only an outline of ‘scenarios’ and minimal character backstory. (A style often termed/associated with “mumblecore.”) Swanberg trusts his actors to have their way with each scene, to emote and fashion dialogue from their own life experiences and feelings—and Happy Christmas’ cast is more than up to this task. Each actor brings genuine emotional baggage to their character (some of whom have more than their fair share), and effortlessly plays off others’ strengths in unaffected interactions. Kendrick, Lynskey, and Swanberg relate to each other with the natural ease (and unease) of any semi-symbiotic family unit. With a little help from Kendrick and Swanberg, Lynskey takes a poignant emotional journey of her own, reflecting on the uneasy balance of life as a mother, wife, and woman, and how to find satisfaction in each role. Kendrick and Dunham enjoy the easy intimacy of a friendship where all manner of sins can be forgiven—though probably not forgotten—in forty-eight hours or less. And Kendrick and Webber combine their respective talents for awkwardness to create a whole that is far more authentically awkward than the sum of its parts. The most natural performance, however, is that of Jude Swanberg (director Joe’s son), a pint-size scene-stealer whose adorable toddler antics just light up the screen. (He is small in size, but not in screen presence—seriously, I could watch this kid eat Cheerios for hours.)
The lack of film’s usual bells and whistles does not detract from the richness of Happy Christmas’ tale—if anything, it serves only to amplify the film’s emotional depth and the strength of the its performances. Swanberg aficionados, fans of his 2013 film Drinking Buddies, those looking to expand their cinematic palate, and all who enjoy films that make you feel relatably real feelings, this frequently funny, chock-full of heart film is for you.
P.S. Be sure to stick around for the post-credits scene, a laugh-out-loud funny look at Swanberg’s filmmaking process—and definitive proof of Kendrick, Lynskey, and Dunham’s flair for improv.
Happy Christmas—available on VOD/digital rental as of June 26—hits select theaters in Los Angeles and Chicago on July 25, and New York on August 1.
★…Play Dates – Cities & Theaters…★
Featured Image: © 2014 Magnolia Pictures
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