REVIEW: Happy Christmas
Produced by: Joe Swanberg, Alicia Van Couvering, Peter Gilbert
Written by: Joe Swanberg
Edited by: Joe Swanberg
Cinematography by: Ben Richardson
Music by: N/A
Starring: Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Lena Dunham, Joe Swanberg, Mark Webber
Originally released widely in the midst of summer, July 2014, this film apparently only popped up on most people’s radars thanks to Netflix and the presence of Pitch Perfect star Anna Kendrick being featured on the film artwork displayed and less so because the film got any widespread word of mouth. At least, that’s exactly how it popped up on my radar, so… I can only assume that that’s how it was with everyone else, right? Its Wikipedia entry even currently makes note of its streaming availability, so my inference is not without any basis in proof. That’s probably for the best, as a film of this sort was never going to make crazy box office numbers in theatres, so it was smart to debut the film early in the year at festivals and then release it to a general public to build up word of mouth before then releasing it to an even wider audience that has essentially already paid admission through their Netflix subscriptions and let the respectable Rotten Tomatoes score, courtesy of all those critics who watched it over the year, convince people to give it a watch during the holiday season. Such is indie filmmaking business, I guess. Hopefully, though, that translates into a film that will actually be watched by more than just a few people, because this is actually a film that’s nicely put together.
Happy Christmas might at first seem like a fairly ironic title for a movie featuring characters who have quite a few problems going for them. Jenny, the younger of the film’s two leads played by Anna Kendrick, is a reckless, aimless girl who moves in with her older brother, his wife, and their nearly 2-year-old son after a pretty bad breakup that doesn’t help her issues with consumption. Kelly, played by Melanie Lynskey, is the wife of Jenny’s brother, a New Zealander who is living far from home and caring for a family without the support of much of an expanded family, not to mention having to be away from them with Christmas soon approaching. When Jenny’s presence immediately proves to be more of a burden than a welcome , she’s understandably frustrated.
Without giving too much away, I can say that the irony soon gives way to a bit more nuance between the two central characters when Jenny hits it off well with her little nephew (played by director/writer/producer/editor and co-star Joe Swanberg’s own son, who clearly enjoys hamming it up whenever his costars give him attention), and the realization that Jenny isn’t a complete lost cause for Kelly and the realization that Kelly isn’t a complete stick in the mud to Jenny soon allows the two to form a strained but genuine friendship between the two sister-in-laws – Jenny becoming the cheerleader for Kelly when it comes to her own ambitions, and Kelly exercising her motherly authority and compassion with Jenny when she screws up.
And that ultimately is the core of this little film. It is your typical “mumblecore” indie film, but it doesn’t have to really aspire to be a mold-breaker, either, which is just fine, given the film’s scope. Much more so than Swanberg’s last film, Drinking Buddies – which was pretty much an indie take on the romantic comedy genre, complete with crazy love triangles – this is a more natural, simplistic, and smaller scale film that is content with sticking to everyday human interactions and problems than with grandiose issues that are a big deal until they are suddenly and easily resolved so that you can learn a big lesson that solves everything, because that’s not ultimately what is important. Happy Christmas is much subtler than that. The point at which the film ends is most definitely not the end of any issues being definitively resolved, nor are any goals seen being achieved, as sticking around through to the end of the credits for the humorously vulgar conversation between the leads emphasizes. The film acknowledges that the events that might follow could very well be another series of setbacks and screw ups for these characters.
Happiness, as presented here, does not depend on knowing that the future is going to be awesome and carefree once you’ve solved that one big problem in your otherwise perfect life, but rather from knowing that there will be someone there caring for you even when you do find yourself at a low point in your life, self-inflicted or not. Happy Christmas rises above the kind of treacly fluff that usually centers around most other holiday films because it aims to be so mundane and small in scope in almost every aspect – the ordinary sets, the fairly average characters, the lack of an accompanying score, the use of improvisation over a definite script, the grainy cinematography – which makes it that much more intimate and recognizable compared to a film like, say, The Family Stone.
Happy Christmas isn’t many things – it’s not your typical Christmastime movie, and, along those same lines, it’s not likely to become an annual Christmas tradition, either. It isn’t a big film, despite the presence of three recognizable cast members (Kendrick, Lynskey, and Lena Dunham in a supporting role). It’s certainly not a “family film,” unless your family is the kind that doesn’t mind watching some frank discussions between three women regarding some explicit ideas for a romance novel. It wasn’t even a Christmas film released in the Christmas season, for that matter. We can definitely be grateful for all that Happy Christmas is not, though, because that is exactly what makes it so much better than it could have been. Even if you have to wait until all the annual favorites have been re-watched and all the presents have been opened and all the family has finally gone home so you can watch it without a family member nagging you about some of the R-rated dialogue, definitely still give Happy Christmas a chance. It’ll be worth the wait.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4 / 5