How you feel about indie films like ‘Happy Christmas’ has a lot to do with what you expect out of them. Joe Swanberg comes out of a filmmaking style known as “mumblecore.” It’s basically low-budget filmmaking where the actors improvise the dialogue. Swanberg is one of the most prolific filmmakers working today. He writes, directs and acts in his own films. He makes them fast, cheap and churns out roughly three films a year. Some are hit or miss but like last year’s ‘Drinking Buddies,’ his latest dramedy ‘Happy Christmas’ is caustically funny. It’s appealing due to the way Swanberg naturally shows a slice of life in his films. It also doesn’t hurt to be friends with Anna Kendrick who gets a chance to show off her naughty side.
Swanberg plays Jeff, a reasonably successful filmmaker who lives in Chicago with his wife Kelly (Melanie Lynskey). By the way, Lynskey is terrific as the stay-at-home mom. She puts her writing career on hold to take care of their toddler Jude (Swanberg’s real-life son). Let me say one thing about Jude. He steals every scene. I’ve never seen a baby give a better performance on film. The Cheerios scene is hilarious. Instead of eating one at a time like most toddlers do, he crams fistfuls in his mouth. Most kids are annoyingly precocious on film but little Jude has a style all his own. He is definitely one of the highlights of the film.
The story centers on Jeff’s sister Jenny (Anna Kendrick) who moves in after a nasty break up. It’s a cool residence in Chicago that was filmed in Swanberg’s actual house. When he gives her a tour, he shows her a renovated basement with tiki-themed décor including a well-stocked bar. Right after dinner, Jenny meets up with her old friend Carson (Lena Dunham). They go to a house party where Jenny passes out from too much drinking and smoking dope. If you’re expecting a squeaky-clean Anna Kendrick from films like ‘Pitch Perfect,’ this character is a polar opposite. Kendrick plays a messy trainwreck. Even though Jenny is 27-years-old, she’s not ready to grow up yet. It’s one of the themes of the movie that some women her age are just not ready to “have it all.”
The weakest link of the film is Dunham. It’s an annoying performance. When she helps Jenny babysit Jude, you sort of cringe. She seems so uncomfortable around the child. Luckily, she’s not in too many scenes but she does show up when Jenny and Kelly brainstorm ideas for a ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ type erotic novel. The language gets pretty raunchy during this scene. Lynskey saves the moment with her warm personality. She conveys the struggles of balancing her responsibilities as a parent and her desire to reignite her writing career. Swanberg perfectly illustrates how young parents never realize how exhausting it is to bring up a toddler until they are thrust into the role of parenthood. The bonding between Jenny and Kelly feels real but it’s too bad Swanberg didn’t give this sister-in-law relationship more time to blossom.
‘Happy Christmas’ has an authentic feel to it thanks to Swanberg’s easygoing filmmaking style. The way his actors improvise dialogue gives it a genuine authenticity. His style of naturalistic storytelling reminds us that life just happens and is not scripted. The official trailer http://youtu.be/UTO1SJf2Ui0. Check out Swanberg's other Sundance hit 'Drinking Buddies' http://www.examiner.com/review/drinking-buddies-movie-review.