As perhaps the poster boy for independent cinema in the last seven to eight years, it’s crazy to realize that lo-fi filmmaker Joe Swanberg has never been in competition at the Sundance Film Festival before. While two of his films have played in Park City previously (though one was a short segment in “V/H/S”), Swanberg and his zeitgeist-defining mumblecore movement (read: indie filmmaking with a cute name and perhaps even lower budgets than audiences were used to at the time), were actually embraced by the SXSW Film Festival and not the indie-defining organizers in Utah.
Uber-prolific (with over a dozen films in seven years—some of them very rough around edges, which could lead some to opine he’s too prolific), things really transformed for Swanberg last year with the release of his breakthrough indie comedy “Drinking Buddies.” His first movie to feature known actors, while still following his loosely sketched out but largely improvised approach, the alcohol-centric unrequited love story was certainly his most accomplished effort to date (and made some $3 million-plus on VOD last summer; a huge success for the film). However, his followup and Sundance competition debut “Happy Christmas” isn’t as polished or successful as its charming and chemistry-overflowing predecessor, and it feels like a return to his more ragged roots. That said, the film does possess ample charms and insights, though admittedly, they do take quite a long time to coalesce.
In the suburbs of Chicago, Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) and Jeff (Swanberg himself) are thirtysomething parents raising their two-year-old toddler Jude (Swanberg’s precocious real-life son, the scene-stealing Jude Swanberg). A budding novelist, Kelly’s had to put her writing life on hold while Jeff brings home the bacon working for a film production company. However, their peaceful existence is deeply torn asunder when Jeff’s careless twentysomething sister Jenny (Anna Kendrick) comes to live with them, reeling from a painful break-up.
A poor decision connoisseur, Jenny begins an ill-conceived and rocky relationship with the parents’ pot-dealing babysitter (Mark Webber) and parties well beyond her limits when she reconnects with her old high school friend Carson (Lena Dunham). As Kelly begins to grow concerned for the safety of her child (Jenny comes home utterly intoxicated on her first night in the household), wondering if the twentysomething will make for a capable guardian, Jenny and Carson begin to instigate a dormant side of Kelly’s creative side: should she really be a stay at home mom when she should be writing her next novel instead?
A well-observed portrait on parenthood, responsibility (and lack thereof), arrested development and the divide between those who have kids and who do not, “Happy Christmas” unwraps a lot of thoughtful ideas over its brief 78-minute run time, but it does take a long time for the gifts to arrive. Some issues arise in its ragged aesthetics. Shot on grainy 16mm film (“Drinking Buddies” was shot digitally), the look of the film (lensed by Ben Richardson of “Beast of the Southern Wild” fame) is definitely a step backwards, and it appears as if the filmmakers only used available light, which doesn’t make for the most flattering photography. And while just as improvised as “Drinking Buddies,” the seams of this extemporization aren’t as flawlessly smooth.
“Happy Christmas” meanders early on as well. At first it appears to be a “Laggies”-esque (review here) tale of adult-lescence via the emotionally troubled and irresponsible Jenny, and then it wanders towards Kelly’s empowering story of balancing the act of motherhood with her creative passions. Eventually the picture reveals itself to be an exploration of all these ideas, plus negligence, obligation, creative expression and family, but it takes a big third act to really tie everything well thematically.
But “Happy Christmas” does exude warmth via the well-drawn performances that establish character. Melanie Lynskey is top-notch as the worried mother Kelly yearning for more, Anna Kendrick shines, somehow making the audience feel empathy for the unreliable Jenny that you might otherwise want to slap, and Jude Swanberg, no joke, provides all the laughs in the shaky first 30 minutes. Joe Swanberg also isn’t the best director to ever want to perennially act in all of his own films, but learning his limitations, he’s perfectly suited for the even-keeled Jeff. Another strong soundtrack (featuring contemporary retro pop songs by Swedish songwriter Joel Alme) doesn’t hurt the picture either.
One could look at “Happy Christmas” as a step backwards from the commercial progress Swanberg made with “Drinking Buddies,” but in truth it’s akin to a less-successful lateral move. The inexhaustible indie filmmaker might not have struck gold twice in a row, but the silver linings of “Happy Christmas” are largely engaging, truthful and affecting. [B-]