Take a Drink: anytime a character does
Do a Shot: for each sincere moment
Take a Drink: whenever the baby does something cute
By: Matt Conway (Two Beers) –
One of my favorite directors working in independent films is Joe Swanberg. Swanberg is one of the big leaders in the mumblecore genre, which has helped in creating a lot of cheaply made but effective dramas. This relatively new genre has helped create great films like Your Sister’s Sister and Frances Ha. Swanberg has also had a great deal of success in the genre, with last year’s Drinking Buddies being a tough cut from my Best Of list last year. However, many of the the big names that started the mumblecore genre seem to be moving on, with both Lynn Shelton and Mark Duplass both trying to do different films as directors.
To me, the mumblecore genre is one that should not just be written off. Many are getting sick of these cheaply-made dramas, which is leading these directors to stop wanting to make these films. For me, I like that the genre exists, as it lets many young directors tell inspired personal stories without having to spend their life savings to make the film. Swanberg’s latest Happy Christmas may not be one of the best films in the mumblecore genre, but it’s certainly another solid edition.
After breaking up with her boyfriend, Jenny moves in with her brother and his writer wife. Throughout her stay, Jenny and Kelly begin to collaborate on a trashy adult novel.
An aspect that many people are overlooking with the film is its look. Joe Swanberg uses his limitations as an advantage, using his limited camera ability to create an authentic, Christmas home video look to the film. A small touch like that is quite thoughtful, and that visual look really adds to the Christmas setting that the film goes for throughout. Even with the limited equipment, this may as well just be Swanberg’s best-looking film yet.
As usual in Joe Swanberg films, the performances are great. With a few exceptions, it seems like Anna Kendrick has not landed a lot of interesting roles since her great debut in Up in the Air, often times playing very similar characters. Here, Kendrick gets to play a version of the perky young adult she usually plays, but this character is instead very realistic. Kendrick is able to convey the same charm ad naturalism she gives in every performance, but show a much more fully-realized and damaged character.
Contrasting Kendrick’s youthful character is Melanie Lynskey, who as Kelly is the matriarch of her family. Lynskey, who is sadly most known for a bit role on Two and a Half Men, gives by and large a career-best performance. Lynskey’s performance in a lot of ways is the heart and soul of this film, just as she is the heart and soul of her family. She is able to convey this unselfish matriarch character in a very naturalistic manner, while creating a character that does not feel like a cliche.
What makes Happy Christmas work is the dynamic between Kelly and Jenny, which is the ultimate driving force in the film. From the early get-go, the audience is introduced to Kelly as being a loving and sharing stay at home mom and Jenny being a reckless and selfish person. However, these simple descriptions of the characters are soon ditched, as the develop nicely during their scenes together. Lynskey and Kendrick have great chemistry together, as their free-flowing, improvised dialogue scenes bring some big laughs and honest moments.
A lot of the credit has to be given back to Swanberg as the writer and director. Swanberg has shown a consistent knack in his dramas to make the story often times unpredictable and always very naturalistic. No events in the story or actions of the characters lack a grounded nature. Swanberg also continues to show his impressive handle on creating effective drama. Instead of forcing it in front of an audience, he continues to create subtle, yet effective dramatic moments that are as effective as any big dramatic set-piece in other films.
While the leads are very well-developed, the side characters in the film felt like they could have used some more work behind them. Mark Webber, Lena Dunham, and even Joe Swanberg himself all do a fine job in their roles in the film, but their characters in a lot of ways felt like blank slates. This is especially the case for Webber and Swanberg’s characters, who have quite a bit of screentime in the film but still lack depth.
Swanberg as a director is known for having somewhat abrupt endings, but here the ending just did not seem to work. The final scene was a small and touching moment, but it felt like the film ended too soon, especially considering its tight 80 minute running time. While full closure should not be expected in a slice of life tale like this, a little more closure on the characters’ situations would have created for more of a dramatic effect.
Happy Christmas is the latest Joe Swanberg indie dramedy that strikes a great balance between effective drama and free-flowing laughs, while featuring some great performances from its cast. Let’s hope Swanberg continues to make more films in the mumblecore genre, because he really has found his groove there.