Ultra-prolific indie director Joe Swanberg has been cranking out multiple films each year for the last several years. A filmography full of partially-formed features based on notions over narrative reached its apex with last year’s fantastic Drinking Buddies – a robust relationship dramedy that found truth in the malaise that lies between young adulthood and actually growing up. It also didn’t hurt that Olivia Wilde and Jack Johnson gave breakout performances that far too few people saw. Swanberg’s latest (as of press time) is Happy Christmas, another improvisational meditation on maturing that maintains a naturalistic, lived-in aesthetic. But while it’s occasionally amusing and mildly insightful, the slight picture feels like a step backwards for the filmmaker.
Chicago couple Jeff (Swanberg) and Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) are mostly content, but financially strapped freelancing parents of a two-year-old (Swanberg’s own infant son Jude). On the heels of a breakup, Jeff’s younger sister Jenny (Anna Kendrick) heads to town for an open-ended visit to crash in the basement and hopefully help out with child care. Kelly’s trepidation with this arrangement is confirmed on the first night when Jenny skips out on dishes after dinner and proceeds to get blackout-drunk at a party where the only person she knows is local friend Carson (Lena Dunham).
Initially a burden that necessitates late-night phone calls and romantically pursues her nephew’s babysitter Kevin (Mark Webber) – who also happens to be a pot dealer, Jenny’s free-spirited charms eventually motivate Kelly to focus on writing her second novel. While she shows signs of growth by looking for an apartment and capably watching over Jude for an afternoon, Jenny’s childish idea to ignite her sister-in-law’s creative spark is to churn out a trashy romance novel that will surely sell quickly. The women form a bond that could be shaken at any moment with Jenny’s next inevitable breach of trust, a pattern that is alienating Jeff.
Happy Christmas is a modest work and should be judged as such, but the spontaneity of the minimalist plot and the lo-fi production leave us yearning for some more defined melodrama to stir the pot. Observational, relatable comedy is present, as in the scene where Jeff promises his wife he’ll “have a talk” with Jenny and wimps out, but most of the time it feels like the cast is searching for situational humor that never quite crystallizes.
The best improviser of the bunch is young Jude, whose attempts at speech and affinity for Cheerios are highlights of the compact 78-minute runtime. Dunham only has a few scenes and shows her great timing with pained expressions during her friend’s party fouls, or in frankly reminding fatigued mother Kelly how pretty she is. Lynskey is believable as equal parts domesticated and repressed creative-type, but her even keel is too passive to make her stand out. Kendrick’s arresting smile only gets her so far here and she uses it as a crutch to back out of any heavy emotional lifting. It may be true to the impish character, but a lack of meaningful conflict leaves the already simple drama at arm’s length.
Swanberg’s decisions to shoot on 16mm with home video visuals and the use of a retro-pop, soulful soundtrack add an everyday authenticity, but he ultimately eschews resolute realism for hollow tenderness. Set during the holidays to reinforce the familiar idea of stressful family responsibilities and complexities – or maybe because it happened to be December and this was next on Swanberg’s to-shoot list – Happy Christmas is a pleasant-enough quick watch that’s easy to digest. And that’s also what makes it somewhat disappointing.