NOTE: This is a reprint of my review from the Sundance Film Festival. Happy Christmas is available now On Demand.
As the most prolific indie filmmaker around with six feature films over the last two years, Joe Swanberg has perfected the art of the loose-knit, improvisational comedy. Last year’s Drinking Buddies was his first with actors audiences recognized, and it ended up on a number of “Top 10′ lists while increasing his profile signicantly. His latest film, Happy Christmas, is another directionless charmer that touches on a number of ever-lasting themes dear to Swanberg’s heart.
Despite the title, Christmas has very little to do with the story, which centers on new parents Jeff (Swanberg himself) and Kelly (Melanie Lynskey). A stay-at-home mom, Kelly is a writer itching to get back to work but is torn between her duties as a mother, taking care of their expressive, scene-stealing son (played by Swanberg’s real-life kid). Their lives are comfortable until Jeff’s train-wreck sister Jenny (Anna Kendrick) pops in for a visit of undetermined length. Having recently broken up with her boyfriend, Jenny is an absolute mess who threatens to ruin everything.
Hoping to instill some responsibility in Jenny, Jeff and Kelly ask her to babysit, only to have her party too hard the night before with best friend, Carson (Lena Dunham). She hooks up with a pot-dealing nice guy (Mark Webber, stuck in these roles for eternity) and has Kelly worried about having her around, especially after Jenny nearly burns the house down.
But Jenny also proves to be the spark that reignites Kelly’s creative side, helping her realize the value in writing trashy novels of the Danielle Steele variety. The film nearly abandons Jenny’s dysfunction in favor of Kelly’s balancing act between motherhood and parenthood. Swanberg has always favored an improvisational approach, allowing his actors the freedom to personalize their characters, but it works only sparingly here, and always when Dunham is around to anchor. One instance where it shines is during a funny conversation about the language of “mommy porn”. The first half of the film moves along glacially, saved only by Swanberg’s son who is already a future star. Sometimes you can tell they just plop the camera down and let the little guy go, and it’s always a treat. All of the performances are terrific, but Lynskey really stands out as Kelly, who worries if wanting a career makes her a bad mother. Kendrick somehow manages to make you care about Jenny despite her repeated bad behavior.
Issues of parenthood, loyalty, substance abuse, and more are touched upon briefly, but at only 78 minutes in length the film doesn’t attempt too much beyond being a funny, warm-hearted slice of life.