Review: Happy Christmas

Director: Joe Swanberg

Stars: Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Mark Webber

I’m not a responsible person. I don’t have any dependants. I live in rented accommodation. Like Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha, I have the sneaking suspicion that everyone around me has figured out how to be an adult ahead of me. And I’m in my thirties now. At some point, I suspect, being an adult is going to have to hit me.

Why do I bring this up in a review of a film called Happy Christmas? Because within hours of arriving to live in Chicago with her brother Jeff (Joe Swanberg, who also directs), Jenny (Anna Kendrick) leaves to go to a party, gets drunk, makes a fool of herself, and causes upset to the lives of those she has newly come into contact with. Jeff’s wife Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) immediately distrusts Jenny, and with understandable reason. Her and Jeff have a two-year old. They’re responsible people. And Jenny… isn’t.

Almost arbitrarily set over the holiday season (a calculated ploy to attain more VOD views? If so, fair play), Happy Christmas is my induction to Swanberg’s directorial style. I’ve become familiar with the man plenty of times, however, thanks to his acting work with his friends Ti West and Adam Wingard (he’s hysterical in You’re Next – a film which has received no shortage of love over here). On this evidence, though I’m somewhat loathe to pigeonhole, Swanberg’s films fall into that most hipster of indie subsets; mumblecore (not familiar? wiki it and save me the copy/paste).

Those who are familiar, therefore, will sort of know what to expect here.  Swanberg’s film feels intimate and comparatively low on ambition, content to collect together a handful of characters and allow them to interact for 80 minutes. Kendrick brings some celebrity credentials to the table, but she’s not alone as the cast here also includes Lena Dunham and the aforementioned Melanie Lynskey. Kendrick’s former Scott Pilgrim co-star Mark Webber rounds out the bunch. Yet star status is nullified in Happy Christmas. There’s a welcome sense that everyone is here for the sake of the work. One of the film’s strengths is an underlying sensation that these are actors enjoying each others’ company in a production that allows them flexibility.

It could be argued that this awareness does the film a disservice – I’m supposed to be immersed in this world and convinced of its reality, aren’t I? – but the truth is, like with films in any genre (save for documentary), the viewer has signed on for the artifice. We watch a film with a star in it and we recognise them from something else. If it’s an effects heavy film, we appreciate good quality effects work. We accept what’s not real but we suspend belief for the escapism of the story. The same rule applies here. Knowing and appreciating good actors who are enjoying working together does not dismantle the film.

In fact, it lends Happy Christmas a few of its modest but significant treasures. The film is at its most charming when it allows Kendrick, Dunham and Lynskey to converse. There are a couple of occasions when they are left to seemingly ramble (including a post-credits sting), and while these relatively long scenes are indulgent, they’re indulgent in the best possible way. Like the peanut butter cups in the festive selection box, you kind of wish there were more of them. just for your own sake.

Lynskey in particular shines here as Kelly; a grounded depiction of a stay-at-home mother’s pragmatism. Kelly is also a semi-successful novelist protective of her intellectual credential, but she’s not beyond manipulating the boundaries of either role. Her wariness of Jenny is understandable, but it’s not hostile. As the film progresses they find common ground, and the way in which she accepts Jenny’s attempts to engage in her life are surprisingly free of the expected beats. That said, Happy Christmas does go back to the well on a couple of occasions, getting mileage out of the old ‘troublesome guest’ routine.

Where Swanberg sidesteps convention, however, is in resolution (or lack of). Not to be the festive turkey (spoiler alert), but just when another film might be gearing up for act three, Swanberg calls time and a preemptive “The End” card advises us that we’re done. It’s jarring in one sense because the immediate impulse is to feel short-changed, yet in retrospect it’s a rejection of conventional resolution. Swanberg is almost asking the viewer to grow-up; life doesn’t tie off with a sweet little bow. Happy Christmas documents a selected number of days in the lives of these people – that’s all. It’s not here to present profound character change or the Eureka moment when someone has the epiphany that puts them on a new path.

Whether you can accept this as a worthy reason to cap a story where others might feed you excess will come down to individual preference. On that note, I was warmed by Happy Christmas, though not bowled over. It’s a gentle, giving experience, but one which exists firmly within its own ambitions. Having not seen Swanberg’s previous work at this time I’m unable to say whether it marks a move forward or otherwise. But if you’re looking for something vaguely festive but not overbearing, something a little bit more grounded, and something that is, on occasion, honestly very funny, you could certainly do a lot worse.

As for me? I’m going to go back to pretending to be an adult, relieved that though I may be irresponsible, I’m not as hazardous as Kendrick’s Jenny.

6 of 10

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