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Happy Christmas (2014 Sundance review)

January 21, 2014  |  3:04pm
<i>Happy Christmas</i> (2014 Sundance review)

Happy Christmas generates such warmth that you might not mind that one of its principal characters doesn’t always make a lot of sense. Writer-director Joe Swanberg’s latest is agreeably loose-limbed, touching on family and the crucial differences between people in their 20s and their 30s. And although it lacks a great thematic hook like Swanberg’s recent Drinking Buddies, Happy Christmas still boasts plenty of modest pleasures thanks to its gentle observations and likable manner.

Christmas is just a few days away as the film begins. Jeff (Swanberg) informs his wife, Kelly (Melanie Lynskey), a stay-at-home mom, that his much younger sister, Jenny (Anna Kendrick), is going to be staying with them for a while. The details are sketchy—Jenny and her boyfriend broke up, and she needs a place to crash—but soon Jenny is at their front door, welcomed with open arms by her brother and sister-in-law. But nonetheless, Kelly’s concerned: Jenny’s first night at their place involves her going out and getting so hammered with friends that Jeff has to come get her in the middle of the night. Do Kelly and Jeff really want that kind of person around when they have a newborn?

The prolific micro-budget filmmaker Swanberg signaled a turn toward more mainstream movies with Drinking Buddies, which examined how people in stable relationships can still seek certain approbation and emotional security from close friends of the opposite sex. This new comedy-drama doesn’t have a singular idea that’s as engaging, but Swanberg has once again given us a collection of appealing characters whose seemingly improvised dialogue (for the most part) doesn’t feel mannered or amateurish.

The just-hanging-out vibe of Happy Christmas produces a rambling storyline in which any attempt at a tight narrative is dismissed for a more ensemble, almost episodic approach. Jenny must confront the fact that Kelly resents her drinking and immaturity, but out of that contentiousness comes something surprisingly lovely, which plays into Kelly’s own frustrations about not being able to focus on her writing because of the baby. Meanwhile, Jenny develops an interest in a friend of Kelly’s (Mark Webber), who first gets her pot but then becomes attracted to her, too. And then there’s the film’s truly delightful interactions between the characters and the baby (played by Swanberg’s own son) who’s such a ham that he’s something of a tiny marvel.

As you might have gathered, nothing of much significance happens in Happy Christmas, which runs less than 80 minutes, but Swanberg is adept at articulating the rhythm of ordinary conversation, finding the telling detail or piece of relatable behavior that makes the commonplace feel universal. For this film, his emphasis seems to be the ways that people try to strike a balance between maturity and aspirations. From the perspective of Kelly, Jenny and her friend, Carson (played with unassuming charm by Lena Dunham), are incredibly lucky, free of the adult responsibilities that have sapped her of her sensuality and creative spark. But to Jenny’s mind, Kelly is a successful grownup, something she’s not sure she’ll ever be herself. Happy Christmas focuses on its female characters and their competing desires, and the candid dialogue has an authenticity that makes it feel like spilled secrets.

The performances are all solid—Lynskey in particular is a champ at making the small throwaway comment funny or touching. But Kendrick struggles a bit with her role. One of Drinking Buddies’ costars, Kendrick has proved herself to be an enormously vivacious and astute actress—and yet, there is something about Swanberg’s style that doesn’t quite mesh with her approach. In both movies, she’s been the one member of the cast who doesn’t seem at ease with his improv-heavy aesthetic. To be fair, in Happy Christmas she’s playing a 27-year-old girl who sure doesn’t want to be a woman, but Kendrick herself comes across as awkward rather than making the character seem that way.

This problem is only compounded by the fact that a key element of Jenny lacks believability. It’s perfectly plausible that she’s immature and directionless, but the film’s suggestion that there might be something darker going on never registers. For all her talent, Kendrick has rarely been able to pull off gritty—her turn in End of Watch an encouraging exception—and that core quality is what’s missing in Jenny. Thankfully, that plot development, like so many in Happy Christmas, is almost beside the point. As the characters have to learn to do for each other, we should just forgive this film’s shortcomings rather than letting them ruin the evening.

Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.

Director: Joe Swanberg
Writer: Joe Swanberg
Starring: Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Mark Webber, Lena Dunham, Joe Swanberg
Release Date: Screening in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival

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