Director: Joe Swanberg
Writer: Joe Swanberg
Stars: Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Joe Swanberg, Lena Dunham, and Mark Webber
Based on the title alone, many viewers will go into Happy Christmas expecting a festive film where characters deck the halls with boughs of holly. While it is technically correct to call this a “Christmas movie”, the latest Joe Swanberg effort does not feel stuck in one season. Shot on grainy 16mm film, the toasty autumnal hues of interior shots feel removed from any Winter Wonderland. But that proverbial mistletoe always hangs over the picture, and we’re reminded that Christmas is fundamentally a time of giving. Yes, gifts are exchanged in this film, but the most salient form of giving is between broken characters who still manage to give pieces of themselves to people who need them more.
There is nothing groundbreaking about the premise. Jeff (director Joe Swanberg) and Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) are happily married with a two-year-old son. Jeff works in film production, while motherhood has forced Kelly to call a hiatus on her writing career. This pleasant domestic dynamic is shaken up by the arrival of Jeff’s sister, Jenny (Anna Kendrick), who is recovering from a tough breakup. Jenny takes up occupancy in the basement, and is expected to help out with household chores and babysitting duties. It soon becomes clear that trusting Jenny to take care of a two-year-old boy is about as wise as trusting Hamburglar to mind your plate of Quarter Pounders. She strikes up an unconventional relationship with the family’s incumbent babysitter, the pot-dealing Kevin (Mark Webber). She goes to a house party and needs to be salvaged by Jeff when she becomes beleaguered by booze. Jenny is 27, but she has the emotional intelligence and stubborn nonchalance of a moody 16-year-old. Kelly’s stagnation crosses paths with Jenny’s bizarre spontaneity when Jenny suggests for Kelly to pen erotic fiction to make a quick buck.
Through his direction, Swanberg transforms the mundane into something incredibly enthralling. Much of the dialogue is improvised, and this unpredictability gives us a reason to hang on every word. The beauty of improvised comedy is that not every joke needs to be funny. The comedy in Happy Christmas is the comedy of real life. Sometimes, when you tell a joke to a group of friends, it will fall so flat that not even the crickets will chirp. This film contains pauses that are funnier than the jokes that precede them. There’s a unique tinge of delightful awkwardness that permeates these interpersonal relationships. It’s as though Swanberg and his actors are trying to evoke that special breed of pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others, or what the Germans called schadenfreude.
The film’s success rests on its convincing performances, with each actor owning their role. Kendrick acts against type as the boisterous, happy-go-lucky Jenny. However, the film always has good intentions and packs a lot of heart, and Jenny’s characterisation is never nasty. Melanie Lynskey is a warm maternal presence, and it was nice to hear her native New Zealand accent—almost a meta-comment on Swanberg’s insistence to keep things real. Lena Dunham is bursting with energy as Jenny’s friend, Carson. She has a great sense of comic timing. Now, it would be remiss of me if I did not mention the performance of Jude Swanberg—the director’s two-year-old son who steals the show as Jeff and Kelly’s baby boy. I have never heard a movie audience react so enthusiastically to one character’s sudden appearance. If they had an Oscar for Best Infant Performance, this kid would wipe the floor with his diaper-clad counterparts.
When I saw Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies earlier this year, I said it was a film that would have made John Cassavetes proud. That film invited viewers’ empathy with consummate ease through naturalistic dialogue and performances. It was shot with an intimacy that positioned me as an eavesdropper, and every word and gesture accumulated to ensure there was something at stake, emotionally, for both the characters and the audience. With Happy Christmas, Swanberg falls short of the greatness he achieved with Drinking Buddies, but that charming, endlessly watchable realism is still there. I do not hesitate when I say that Joe Swanberg is one of the most refreshing voices in American cinema today, and one of the greatest directors of naturalistic human drama we have seen in decades. He is carving out a genre that I call Mumblecore Nouveau. The bare-bones principles of mumblecore remain, but the films make use of bigger stars and the production values are more polished due to higher budgets. I look forward to his next endeavour.