From the first frame of Joe Swanberg’s “Happy Christmas,” there’s an immediate sense of change afoot.
The director’s first feature shot on 16mm film has the look of a far more polished effort than the countless features he has made over the past decade. That perception is validated by the ensuing story, a cohesive dramedy about the strain of married life and its absence, with some of the best performances in Swanberg’s ever-expanding oeuvre (though nothing that eclipses Olivia Wilde in last year’s “Drinking Buddies”). Sweetly funny and relatable, “Happy Christmas” builds on the director’s previous work by channeling its strong aspects — naturalism and self-effacing, true-to-life humor — into a relatively straightforward but largely endearing character study.
Building on the success of “Drinking Buddies,” Swanberg’s first bigger production with a name cast, “Happy Christmas” finds him re-teaming with “Drinking Buddies” star Anna Kendrick in an entirely believable role as Jenny, a young woman struggling to get her life in order following a breakup. In an early scene, she crashes with her Chicago-based brother Jeff (Swanberg, who has finally shifted from playing embellished versions of himself to become a credible actor in his own right), who lives comfortably with his wife Kelly (Lynskey) and their toddler son (Swanberg’s real-life son Jude). But over the course of Jenny’s visit, the family confronts its comfort levels, while Jenny drifts between parties and a tentative new romance while dodging the responsibility to get her act together.
The plot unfolds with a series of lightweight developments: Jenny’s lack of accountability emerges when she accompanies her old friend Carson (Lena Dunham, in a handful of scenes) to a house party and promptly gets blackout drunk, forcing her brother to pick her up in the middle of the night. Jeff’s sweet, vulnerable wife confronts Jenny about the issue in the morning, expressing concern about having her around their infant child. The couple squabbles over whether to let their freewheeling visitor stick around. Meanwhile, Jenny falls for the neighborhood babysitter (Mark Webber), an affable musician with a penchant for pot smoking who represents a new opportunity for the lonely woman. Eventually, Jenny bonds with Kelly, a stay-at-home mom who aspires to become a novelist, by urging her to write erotic fiction. These scenes take place with a genial quality that makes the household and its surrounding drama steadily engrossing even though next to nothing happens.
That minimal plot is par for the course in Swanberg’s storytelling, but while “Happy Christmas” lacks the emotional finality of “Drinking Buddies,” it succeeds to a large degree on the basis of its unostentatious performances. Lynskey is impressively low key as the sad-eyed housewife desperate to increase her productivity, and Kendrick’s turn as an unruly wanderer undoubtedly marks her most authentic role to date. In fewer scenes, Dunham and Webber capably flesh out a run-of-the-mill world defined by people caught between their personal goals and the mundane cycle of day to day existence. Meanwhile, the youngest member of the Swanberg clan provides an adorable high energy presence.
Crucially, none of the “Happy Christmas” cast is entirely contemptible. Though Jenny seems as though she’s on the verge of self-destruction at every given moment, she’s never outwardly bitter. When she smokes pot in the basement with her brother, her demeanor speaks volumes about the grass-is-greener mentality afflicting them both: “I’m kind of jealous you get to live in my basement,” he tells her, while she silently admires the fact that he even owns one. When she finally lashes out about his disdain for her recklessness, he shouts back, “My fucking life in this house!” Throughout “Happy Christmas,” we witness an untangling of that assertion.
Audiences unfamiliar with Swanberg’s many films would do well to start with “Happy Christmas,” a modest work of shrewd storytelling riddled with potent themes that never overstates them. Admittedly, “Happy Christmas” is a thin piece of storytelling that gradually winds down with a series of terse exchanges and a throwaway resolution. But it also epitomizes Swanberg’s abilities as an entertaining filmmaker — an outcome of his loose technique visible ever since 2007’s “Hannah Takes the Stairs,” but manifested here in a way that doesn’t flaunt its ragged production values. With so many strong ingredients in play, the shrug of an ending certainly leaves something to be desired. But at just under 80 minutes, “Happy Christmas” presents a cogent snapshot of conflicting lifestyles, which defines Swanberg’s talent in a nutshell.
A version of this review ran during the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. “Happy Christmas” opens Friday in Los Angeles and August 1 in New York. It is currently available on VOD.