It’s like Joe Swanberg lightened up since last year’s too-cool-for-school Drinking Buddies. Watching hipster brewers feel as if the world is ending when they can’t stay the course in relationships is discomforting for various reasons. The mumblecore maestro has made a name for himself with his low-budget and even lighter script fare, all dealing with inexpressive twentysomethings, often naked in the Chicagoland area. Sexual Perversity in Chicago by David Mamet it ain’t, but Swanberg tries to reflect on how selfish young folks are. It’s a very slight set of films, born out of the Cassavetes model. It’s also a genre made of self-centered young people – honest at times, but still pretentious. We’re the worst. It’s not entirely Swanberg’s fault if his films annoy; let’s call it an occupational hazard. That’s why Happy Christmas feels like a step forward – those darn youths are now having kids and being forced to accept responsibility.
Happy Christmas is a maturing process for the director, dealing with familiar themes in a more controlled, deep, fashion. Lobbed as a tiny dramedy, this is about crucial points and adjustments at the edge of 30. This is about family and growing up and people in arrested development facing these issues. Maybe it’s Swanberg’s age (or having a kid of his own – who happens to star as his son in the movie), but this is certainly his most considerate and perceptive film to date.
Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) and Jeff (Swanberg) are a young couple with a two-year-old boy, contented, just looking to get through the holidays. They’re middle class with a snazzy city bungalow and interesting-sounding jobs. He’s in film production and she’s an author.
Enter Lucy (a bare-all Anna Kendrick), Jeff’s ne’er-do-well sister. She’s a little over the edge from a breakup and needs a place to stay, so she moves in with Kelly and Jeff. Jeff doesn’t really talk to Lucy, playing the part of wise but resigned elder. He gets that she’s mid-tailspin, but would never want to feel like he’s imposing. Kelly has her trepidations, especially after Lucy gets stinko with old friends her first night in.
It’s all plain, surface-level stress, as the three must learn to jive with one another. The young couple struggles to balance work lives and ambitions with raising a kid. Lucy is having a hard time with responsibility and commitment issues. None of the trio’s problems break new dramatic ground. In fact, this movie feels at times like it’s just getting away with retelling a million other domestic dramas in minimalistic fashion. Yet Swanberg does deserve credit for keeping everything genuine and brief. It’s a snapshot, not a thesis. Happy Christmas is all about the struggles everyday ordinary people deal with, and while not revelatory (or particularly memorable), it’s relatable, and winsome. Swanberg’s mostly movie benefits from his barebones approach – you can protest the camerawork or thin characterization later, but in the short term you feel satisfied by the shrewd intimacies of these people.
Swanberg benefits greatly from his two extremely talented leading ladies. Lynskey plays a new mother with all the anxiety you might expect, yet with a soft bite, selflessness, and candor that makes her a friendly presence. Someone’s got to be the adult in this movie, and that’s Lynskey. Kendrick, meanwhile, gives a performance that could be best described as an understated implosion. She’s at a tipping point, completely unaware of what do. She makes some enormous, yet forgivably familiar mistakes (ever fall asleep with your hand in a jar of pretzels waiting for a pizza to cook in the oven?). Kendrick is unabashedly naughty, but she does actually mean well.