MOVIE REVIEW | Happy Christmas (2014)


“Can you make me feel stuff, too?”

Last year, when I wrote about Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies, I said, “It’s got laughs, but I wouldn’t call it a comedy.  It’s got a couple of emotional eruptions, but I wouldn’t call it a drama.  It’s all hand held camera work, semi improvised dialogue and rough lighting, but I wouldn’t call it indie.” Now, a year later, I’ve just watched Swanberg’s Happy Christmas¸ and have come away with a similarly ambiguous reaction. Accept the indie thing. There’s no confusion there. Happy Christmas is quintessential, no budget, super independent film making at its most “INDIE!!!”.

Anna Kendrick is Jenny, a directionless 20 something who’s just broken up with her boyfriend and has no idea what to do next. So, she moves back to her hometown of Chicago to stay with her older brother Jeff (writer and director Swanberg), his wife Kelly (Melanie Lynskey), and their toddler son Jude (played by Swanberg’s real life son of the same name).

Jenny sets the agenda early. On her first night in town, she goes to a party with her old friend Carson (Lena Dunham), and ends up blackout drunk. She’s soon hooking up with Jude’s babysitter (Mark Webber as Kevin), who also becomes her drug dealer. She also convinces Kelly to strive for me than being a stay at home mum, and pursue her once promising career as a writer.

I’ve read way more about Swanberg’s movies than I’ve actually seen. As a forerunner in the Mumblecore world, it seems like he’s never been too concerned with traditional narrative. His characters still grow and evolve, but the rarely do it via a tidy three act structure. His moves also prove that character growth doesn’t have come via world altering events. It’s the smallest, most personal moments that have the biggest effect on the characters of Happy Christmas and Drinking Buddies.

Totally improvised with no traditional script, there are times when Happy Christmas uses that off the cuff, unrehearsed style to create moments of absolute reality and completely natural performances. It also leads to the most frustrating aspects of the movie. Some of the exchanges are so real, so awkward and so obviously in the moment, that they annoyed me in an all too real way. Once or twice, I really wished there was some tightly scripted dialogue so I could get through these uncomfortable moments quicker.

Kendrick is really good. Dunham is really good. Lynskey is really good. Webber is really good. Swanberg is really good behind and in front of the camera. But Happy Christmas belongs to Jude Swanberg. This little, toddling bastard doesn’t even know he’s acting and he steals every single scene he’s in. At one stage, Dunham’s character describes him as being really finny. Knowing that there was no script and that that line was improvised, I’m pretty sure she’s talking about that kid being funny just hanging out on set.

I like Drinking Buddies, and I like Happy Christmas, but neither grabbed me enough to all of a sudden want to go through Swanberg’s filmography. He’s undeniably great at capturing real life, I think I’m just after something a little less real from movies.

Happy Christmas
Directed By – Joe Swanberg
Written By – Joe Swanberg

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