Jenny (Anna Kendrick) is a bit of a mess. After some recent turmoil, Jenny moves back to her hometown to live with her brother Jeff (writer-director Joe Swanberg), his wife Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) and their infant son. Jenny isn’t just directionless in life; she is the kind of reckless that stirs up trouble for those around her. Over roughly 90 minutes, Jenny, Jeff and Kelly try figure out what to do with one another now that this new, unpredictable element has entered their lives.
It wasn’t meant to be this way. Jenny’s arrival was expected to help everyone. Jenny would have a place to stay and get herself together. Jeff and Kelly’s routines were also going to have an extra pair of hands around the house for assistance, maybe even allowing the latter more time to write the novel she was hoping to complete.
There isn’t much more to Happy Christmas and there’s doesn’t need to be. This latest character study by Swanberg (Drinking Buddies) is quietly excellent, lingering long after its conclusion. Swanberg has an eye for the complex dynamics of relationships, both familial and romantic. From the onset, we can tell that Kelly isn’t quite comfortable with Jenny. She knows her husband’s sister isn’t a drug-addicted maniac or anything. Still, Kelly sees Jenny for what she is; a rambling individual who doesn’t think beyond her current situation. As a mother, with her own wants, needs and expectations, Kelly wants to embrace Jenny, and struggles to do so.
What makes Happy Christmas such a success is how low-key it remains. There are hectic incidents that pop into the narrative sure. Swanberg lets them stand by keeping them rare. Take for instance an early scene where Jeff and Kelly let Jenny babysit their son for, seemingly, the first time. Jenny doesn’t freak out about what to do. The kid doesn’t crack his skull. Instead, life happens in a very natural manner that gives light to who each character is and how they react to a particular situation. The movie has a humanity that few American films manage in a given year. Jenny does her share of dumb things; no more so than most people in their mid-twenties.
Kendrick and Swanberg are good as siblings, laughing about their previous mistakes and trouble-making. It is Lynskey that steals the show. Always a reliable talent, Lynskey has rarely been given a character this rich. At first glance, her Kelly could be seen as a mean-spirited, almost shrill wife. That interpretation is quickly shed as we see more and more of her and how Lynskey infuses her with a hint of melancholy. This grows profoundly as Kelly begins to write her book, which she does in her husband’s work office when he’s away. As she plots what to construct, Jenny pops by and their timid bond, one that is based at this juncture via mutual acquaintance, evolves. Jenny is genuinely intrigued in Kelly’s skill-set, even as she fails to fully comprehend it. As they shoot around ideas on how to make the next “50 Shades of Grey,” it’s a natural progression of friendship.
Swanberg ignores the easy route here, letting everyone’s warts rise to the surface, as well as their wonderful traits. It makes for a movie that is one of my personal favorites for 2014 thus far.
Happy Christmas opens exclusively at Landmark’s Varsity Theatre on Friday.