Kate Erbland January 22, 2014
The joke used to be that Joe Swanberg made a new movie approximately every month or so, a hefty quantity of filmmaking output that didn’t necessarily mirror the actual quality of the material the multi-hyphenate artist was creating. Swanberg may have premiered three new films last year, but it’s a far cry from 2011, when he put out six full features, bowing at various film festivals throughout the year. Swanberg has slowed down (just a bit) over the past couple of years, and the result has been a steady evolution in both his craft and his creations. Perhaps less really is more, even for Joe Swanberg.
Swanberg’s latest film, “Happy Christmas,” serves as a nice companion piece to 2013’s “Drinking Buddies,” which also cleverly tangled up maturing, drinking, and relationships into one big stew of post-adolescent angst. Anna Kendrick again stars for Swanberg (as Jenny, she’s far less put together than Jill is in “Drinking Buddies,” though it’s interesting to consider the pair as two sides of one coin), and she takes on the bulk of the heavy lifting in an admirably talented cast of indie all-stars. Recently dumped by her boyfriend, Jenny has decamped to her brother Jeff (Swanberg) and his wife Kelly’s (Melanie Lynskey, the emotional anchor of the film) happy Chicago home in the days before Christmas to figure out her life and decide on a next step.
Jeff and Kelly are reasonably, regularly happy, though Jeff’s career (independent filmmaker, naturally) and Kelly’s gig as stay-at-home mom is gently wearing at them, a subplot that is addressed in a number of believable and entertaining ways throughout the film. Swanberg’s own infant son, Jude Swanberg, co-stars as Jeff and Kelly’s baby, and his presence seems to be just as soothing to his father as his father’s is to him – this is some of Swanberg’s best on-screen work yet, and if that means that Jude needs to start popping up in all of his papa’s films, that’s a win-win, because baby Jude is adorable, charming, and extremely funny.
While Jenny puts on a brave face for Jeff, Kelly, and her pal Carson (Lena Dunham, playing a character similar to her Hannah on Girls, but with a bumbling kind of attention to manners that could have been explored a bit more), but she’s clearly struggling. In town for just hours, she heads to a party with Carson, where she proceeds to black out, pass out, and then be just plain out to the world. While mortified by her behavior (Jeff eventually needs to come help Carson get her home, that’s how plastered she is), Jenny tries to pass it off as a one-off that won’t happen again. That’s not entirely true.
Kendrick is painfully adept at conveying morning-after shame and lingering embarrassment – through just a few downcast looks and stray grimaces, she says everything she needs to, and it’s so real that audience members feel compelled to turn away, lest they share in the red-faced-ness. Jenny is the prototypical slacker twentysomething, a kid stuck in an adult’s body who is unable to appropriately respond to the demands of real life (though that does not mean that will always be the case for her). When forced into coexisting with Jeff and Kelly, slightly older but still firmly living in Grown Up Land, Jenny regresses and moves further and further away from some very necessary evolutions. “Happy Christmas” is a film about growing up, but by forcing two very different stages of that kind of maturation to literally live side by side, Swanberg does some of his most canny and relatable work yet.
The film still looks and feels like a Swanberg joint, it walks and talks like one, and while that sort of lo-fi and loose atmosphere and technical style aren’t for everyone, Swanberg is clearly refining the things the skills and viewpoints that he wants to infuse into all of his works. Comfortable and conversational, Swanberg’s characters move and sound like real people, and while that leads to some repetition and slack about an hour or so into the film, “Happy Christmas” is still Swanberg’s most mature and satisfying film yet. If we have to wait another year for another one, that’s just fine.
SCORE: 7.9 / 10
Categories: ReviewsTags: Happy Christmas, Joe swanberg, Kate Erblandr, Lena dunham, Review, Sundance