Anna Kendrick is so ingratiating in films like Pitch Perfect, 50/50, and Up in the Air, that fans may be taken aback seeing her play a fuck-up in Happy Christmas. But this film, written and directed by Joe Swanberg—she co-starred in his Drinking Buddies last year—gives her room to stretch and grow on screen. She succeeds admirably.
This intimate, talky comedy-drama stars Kendrick as Jenny, who moves in with her filmmaker brother Jeff (Swanberg), his wife Kelly (Melanie Lynskey), and their two year old son Jude (Jude Swanberg) after breaking up with her boyfriend. Jenny immediately proceeds to get blackout drunk at a party her friend Carson (Lena Dunham) takes her to. This causes Jeff and Kelly anxiety about trusting her with their child.
When they hire Kevin (Mark Webber) to sit for Jude one afternoon, Jenny strikes up a friendship with him and later meets him for a date. Their relationship develops slowly, but Happy Christmas deliberately eschews plot for characterization. The film is certainly a byproduct of the mumblecore genre that Swanberg built his career on; the characters in the film mostly sit and chat in character and this is either fascinating or frustrating. Here it is a mix of both.
One of the key scenes involves Jenny and Carson having drinks in Kelly and Jeff’s basement Tiki Bar. When they invite Kelly to join them, the young mother reluctantly admits that while she loves her child, she wants less time to be a stay at home mom and have more time to write novels. The discussion, which occurs almost organically, addresses the very real dilemma of “wanting to have it all.” This prompts Kelly to bemoan, “I have to do everything!” if she gets her wish.
Such insights are revealing about the characters, and a salient feature of Happy Christmas. However, they are few and far between. One of the other scenes involving Kelly, Jenny, and Carson involves them brainstorming plots and words for an erotic novel Jenny prompts Kelly to write. Discussing the appropriate words for vagina and penis is more boring than stimulating.
The relationship between Jenny and Kevin is also deliberately amorphous. Whether he is a rebound guy or someone she is starting to care about is never clear. And it doesn’t have to be. But it is hard for viewers to become invested in their casual relationship. Jenny doesn’t spend much time agonizing over her failure, but that may be because she is too busy getting high. Her drinking and drugging eventually prompt a situation that is the closest the film gets to a dramatic moment.
And that is just fine, because Happy Christmas captures the rapport between the characters well. The comfortable moments Jeff and Kelly share—talking good and bad about their families, or hanging out in bed—are warm and cozy, and a nice contrast to the awkward moments Jenny has with, well, pretty much everyone.
Swanberg lets these scenes unfold naturally, and viewers who respond to the low-key vibe will enjoy this modest film. All others, steer clear.
Happy Christmas opens today at the Ritz Bourse.
Author: Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer. He is the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina. Volumes 1 and 2, and teaches seminars at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer.