Happy Christmas, the latest film from Drinking Buddies writer/director, Joe Swanberg is an honest look at family, love and the intricacies of surviving and thriving while living a normal life. Highlighting themes that a vast majority of audiences are sure to relate to, it does so with style, finesse and humor.
Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) and Jeff (Joe Swanberg) are parents to son, Jude. They are settled and living a quiet life in Chicago until Jeff’s sister, Jenny (Anna Kendrick) comes to stay after having broken up with her boyfriend. Jenny is a self centered, manipulative, yet charming woman who stirs up their once bland routine. After Jenny and her friend Carson (Lena Dunham) arouse Kelly’s desire to reignite her dormant writing career, the trio spend hours together brainstorming ideas for her “mommy porn” novel.
Heavily attached to what’s known as the mumblecore movement, Swanberg exhibits its traditional ideology here-improvised and natural performances from sincere characters who are experiencing everyday issues. Shot on 16mm, Swanberg skillfully crafts a 70's vibe that the audience will find comforting. Known for churning out a plethora of movies (thirteen since 2005), Happy Christmas is his most mature to date.
With a feminist tilt, the film addresses the challenge it is to be a woman today. The concept of a woman having it all (of having a career, and being a wife and mother) is explored as Jeff and Kelly face the age-old problem of finding equality in a marriage with young children. Stay-at-home mom, Kelly, who is also a novelist, comes to admit her resentment that Jeff, a filmmaker, gets to go to fancy lunches and she’s stuck at home in her pajamas. To add to the problem, she explains that she’s having a hard time finding the time to write. The couple is progressive enough to address their problems head on and Jeff is fully supportive of his wife’s attempts to regain her self-esteem.
Swanberg chose his cast well. Kendrick, who also starred in Drinking Buddies, creates a character that we don’t want to like, yet somehow do; Jenny is an irresponsible mess who can’t seem to get her life together. While she knows being irresponsible, as a twenty-something year old she’s quite settled about the fact and feels no burden while making excuses for her reckless behavior. Lynskey plays a sweet, nonthreatening Kelly, a role that in less capable hands could have turned into a portrayal of a demanding and unhappy wife. Lena Dunham shines as Jenny’s friend and offers some of the wittiest lines of the improvised scenes. Swanberg’s own son plays Jeff and Kelly’s son, Jude, and arguably steals many of the scenes.
At seventy-eight minutes, the film is unusually short yet packs in much for the audience to consider and absorb. I was exceptionally amused at the film’s slight toward the so-called sexy, trashy mom novel phenomenon that has pervaded the country. Overall, the film’s take on issues involving family and relationships is fresh and insightful. Kudos to Swanberg and company for creating a film that is true to its genre, but also universal in its appeal.