3.5 / 5 stars
While continuing to write and direct his low-key films at an unusually rapid (sometimes unbelievable) pace, Joe Swanberg has managed something a little unexpected – he’s matured. As with many of his previous warts-and-all efforts, in Happy Christmas, the 32-year-old inserts an interloper into an established setting (Nights and Weekends, Uncle Kent, All the Lights in the Sky) to see what kind of discomfort or humor surfaces. But here, the interrupted foundation is made up of real grown-ups committed to a real family life. It’s mild progress, and it adds to Swanberg’s likeable dynamic.
The interloper, in this case, is Jill (Anna Kendrick, in her second Swanberg movie following the accessible Drinking Buddies), an unfocused 20-something who moves into her brother Jeff’s basement following a vague breakup. But Jeff (Swanberg) has more than just a classic, tiki-styled bar and crash couch – he also has a toddler son and a quiet wife (the always underrated Melanie Lynskey) to care for. This is clearly no place for a partying little sister, but that doesn’t stop Jill from being as irresponsible as she wants to be.
Happy Christmas succeeds – as many of Swanberg’s films do – by tamping down on traditional conflict “drama,” keeping a lid on the kind of clenched-fist thrashing and venting that might ordinarily have a home in family dramedies. Jeff and Jill spend a couple funny scenes beating around the bush, not able to directly address little sister’s uncanny ability to come home stupid drunk and gently tilt the family balance.
Instead of elaborating on the sibling relationship, however, Swanberg transitions the story to the connection between the sisters-in-law, a further sign of the director’s desire to expand beyond expected indie film identifiers. As Happy Christmas moves along, it becomes a conversation about the roles women play in their 20s and 30s, Swanberg bringing Lena Dunham and her dopey-smart persona into the mix to form a fairly successful three-part female harmony. What begins as a fairly timid girls’ drink in the basement evolves into the trio spending weeks developing the next great erotic novel.
Swanberg is now able to attract some considerable acting talent – his Drinking Buddies quartet was a career highlight – so it’s amusing that so much of the energy in Happy Christmas comes from the spontaneity of its youngest player, little Jude Swanberg as the family’s bouncing baby boy. You can picture this kid heading toward the Terrible Twos with a fairly constant camera presence in his life; he’s comfortable, especially with Dad in the frame, and sometimes flat-out hilarious. Swanberg’s loose filmmaking style is probably tailor-made for his cast and modest crew to include a babbling kid. Just roll camera, inspire a couple actions, and see what happens.
Besides Jude’s fine, unaware performance (wait til you see this kid eat fistfuls of Cheerios), Anna Kendrick pulls off what may be an overlooked acting feat: she makes us dislike her. If you were living with Jill, you’d want to kick her out of the house. Kendrick has Jill refuse to own up to her issues, but doesn’t play the victim, which would have been an easy choice. Even in the simple stuff, there’s the subtlety of a pro.
Criticism will continue about the apparent lack of narrative organization in Swanberg’s films, but the uniqueness of his style makes a real difference. His further growth may come from tapping into even more tried-and-true themes in ways others in the mainstream are not. And adding his kid in now and again can’t hurt.