Happy Christmas – SIFF 40 Review

Joe Swanberg’s latest endeavor pits Anna Kendrick against growing up.

Lena Dunham, Anna Kendrick and Jude Swanberg in HAPPY CHRISTMAS, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Lena Dunham, Anna Kendrick and Jude Swanberg in HAPPY CHRISTMAS, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Joe Swanberg‘s Happy Christmas isn’t really about Christmas, it’s about family and I know that sounds totally cliche, but it’s the truth.  Yes, the film takes place during the holiday, but the focus lies on a thirty-something Chicago couple and their young son as well as the husband’s younger sister who moves in with them to try and help raise the baby, but ends up becoming a child-like burden, herself.

In the film, Joe Swanberg plays Jeff, a young film director who along with his aspiring novelist wife Kelly (played by Melanie Lynskey), have their hands full taking care of their 18 month old son Jude (played by Swanberg’s real-life son Jude).  Parenting has been taking it’s toll on the two of them and this strain has pulled Kelly further and further away from her writing.  Enter Jenny, Jeff’s party friendly sister who has just been through a nasty break up, played by Anna Kendricks.

Melanie Lynskey and Joe Swanberg in HAPPY CHRISTMAS, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Melanie Lynskey and Joe Swanberg in HAPPY CHRISTMAS, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Jeff and Kelly decide that they’ll help Jenny by letting her stay with them in an attempt to lighten the household weight around Kelly so that she can pursue her literary endeavor.  On her first night with the couple, Jenny blacks out at a party leaving her old friend Carson, played to top notch quality by Lena Dunham to deal with the fallout.  As a result of her actions, Jenny sleeps through her first day of babysitting and the couple have to reach out to call their family friend Kevin (played by Mark Webber) to watch they baby.  The incident leads Kelly to question whether or not Jenny is a capable guardian for Jude.

Anna Kendricks’ Jenny is not an unlikable character in this film.  The usually strait-laced Kendricks, definitely is working outside of her comfort zone in this film.  Director Joe Swanberg stated; “I feel like she’s been so consistently ‘good’ in films. What I was hoping to show with Happy Christmas is that she’s amazing doing any kind of character.”.  Jenny is often times helpless in the film, going through that sort of freeing regression that you experience post break-up.  Her actions are the type that, when viewed through the eyes of peers, are excusable and require minimal explanation.  However, finding herself in the company of two adults raising a child, she must try and keep it together if only for the sake of keeping a roof over her head.

Anna Kendrick in HAPPY CHRISTMAS, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Anna Kendrick in HAPPY CHRISTMAS, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

After inviting Kelly to drink a beer with them in the family’s tiki-bar basement, Jenny and Carson are witness to Kelly’s confession that her role as a stay at home mom has stripped her of her sense of self and compromised her drive to be creative.  This is where the story begins to shift away from Jenny’s selfish antics and starts to share focus on Kelly’s challenge of wanting to be there for her child and wanting to be there for herself.

Some of the dialogue in the film feels much more forced and in-organic, specifically between Anna and Jenny.  In the story, the relationship between the two women is strained, but that tensity in the unstructured dialogue makes their scenes together somewhat awkward and contrived,  In one particularly not so funny scene, Jenny is brainstorming with Kelly for book material with the assistance of Lena Dunham’s Carson.  That scene is saved entirely be Dunham, who’s quick wit pulls the car back on the road, and gets you through to the end.

The true scene-stealer of the film is Swanberg’s 18 month-old son Jude.  His onscreen interaction with the other cast members is truly hilarious, and his ability to improvise with his father in a couple of scenes was something genuinely endearing.  It’s too bad that Swanberg couldn’t have tightened up his casting a bit better.  I guess at the root of it, that’s what held me up with this film.  All in all, I would recommend this film to those who are more familiar with Swanberg’s other works.  If you are a fan of Mumblecore cinema, don’t miss this.

Happy Christmas plays Friday, May 30th at 9:30pm at SIFF Uptown as part of SIFF 2014

 

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