Happy Christmas (2014)

happychristmasposter

Mumblecore: “A genre of films that depend on naturalistic conversations in real places, focus on single characters in their twenties and thirties, and often depart from clear narrative structures. These films are often made on cheap budgets, sometimes in black and white, and are often produced with minimal soundtracks.” This, ladies and gentlemen, is what Joe Swanberg has to offer you and I assure you that he delivers!

Kelly and Jeff have a moment.
Kelly and Jeff have a moment.

Jeff & Kelly (Joe Swanberg & Melanie Lynskey) live a pretty standard life at home. While Jeff goes of to work each day, Kelly stays at home with their son Jude (Jude Swanberg) and when she can, finds time to write. Kelly had written a sophisticated novel before, but just doesn’t have the time and energy to keep writing productively. Things change when Jeff’s younger sister Jenny (Anna Kendrick) asks to move in, after just having broken up with her boyfriend. She’s young, single, and looking to party and does so immediately after getting into town. After a night that rapidly becomes a drunken blur, it’s clear that Jenny is still a child and Kelly isn’t so sure how she feels about her watching their son.

After awaking hungover and confused, Jenny finds Kevin (Mark Webber) babysitting Jude and she is utterly confused. The two manage to hit it off from the get-go (albeit awkwardly) and when Kelly gets home, Jenny tries to make amends. More than that, Jenny had her friend Carson (Lena Dunham) over for drinks and they get Kelly a bit tipsy, just to get her open and honest. The ladies talk about their lives, children, and what they’re really passionate about and it’s clear that Kelly loves to write, but just finds it difficult with all she has going on. On top of that, the ladies think that an erotic novel will be easy enough to write and they have many a brainstorming session about what to include. They’re all trying to make something work and it gets tougher as you get older, but they’re all family and can (hopefully) work something out.

Jenny and Carson play with Jude.
Jenny and Carson play with Jude.

Happy Christmas finds a way into your heart with its realistic characters, realistic scenarios, and pure portrayal of adult and young-adult life. It certainly helps that all of the cast come across as authentic and average human beings, which makes this film much easy to connect with on multiple levels. More than that, this film manages to cover a vast array of seemingly normal ideas and excels at doing so with wonderful execution (thanks to some fantastic lead/supporting actresses). Though I can’t entirely relate to these people (because I don’t have a kid, nor do I know many people near my age with kids), I’ve certainly overheard many conversations like the ones in this film and I know many irresponsible young-adults.

Melanie Lynskey is the heart and soul of this movie and her understated performance is among the best I’ve seen from an actress all year. Her presentation of a woman somewhat stuck in her own head and wanting a bit more in life is beautiful and she plays the character with perfection. She’s sweet and tender with her child and husband, but isn’t afraid to be assertive when something needs to happen. Lynskey finds herself caught in an in-between, not really knowing what she wants to do, but she soon finds happiness and joy when she begins writing again. She has immediate chemistry with whomever she’s with and her conversations with Kendrick, Dunham, and Swanberg come across as completely genuine.

Jenny and Kevin play with Jude.
Jenny and Kevin play with Jude.

As good as Lynskey is on her own, this movie wouldn’t have been complete without the antics of the wonderful Anna Kendrick and her partner-in-crime, Lena Dunham. Together, those two come up with a lot of strange ideas that they take completely seriously and try to implement in Lynskey’s novel. Who else would try to persuade someone to write an erotic novel, but two young-adult women? Kendrick brings a lot to the table with her nervous persona and wandering mind, unsure of what she wants. Dunham, while she’s on-screen, never lets up on the comedy and has you busting a gut as she describes choice words for the novel. You also can’t forget Swanberg, who takes the backseat in his film and lets his ladies do all the work, occasionally stepping in to voice his ideas and lay down the law. Major props to Swanberg’s son for being one of the best child actors ever (and being one of the most adorable).

While this film may wander with its story and characters, I did love the idea of the women brainstorming how to write one of those cheesy, erotic novels that they sell virtually everywhere. We all say that we can write that stuff fairly quickly, but the ladies soon learn that it’s a lot of work to come up with stories, characters, sexual intrigue, and a general story. From that brainstorming though, the ladies let loose and begin to have real fun! Most of this film came off as improvisational, but I didn’t mind that at all because it created a real atmosphere and those odd conversations that people actually have. Nothing about this movie felt like a movie and for that I give a huge round of applause to the cast.

What happened last night?
What happened last night?

With four great characters (five if you include Swanberg’s son), there had to be at least one weak one and that’s Mark Webber. It’s not necessarily his fault, but his character is dry and I never felt engaged while he was acting. His character is poorly written and Kendrick does all the heavy lifting in their scenes. Kendrick’s character does suffer a bit in the end, as she forms old habits and reverts to a melancholy attitude. Her character’s change in moods are swift and don’t always make sense, especially the one at the end of the film that sets off an odd chain of events. These are the only “bad” parts in an otherwise great film.

Happy Christmas isn’t all that much about Christmas, but it’s certainly happy and that’s how you’ll feel when you watch it. The joy of this film is in its characters exploration of themselves and each other and Swanberg’s direction (or perhaps lack thereof) allows most everyone to be themselves and have the story form around them. I can’t stress enough how great Lynskey is and it’s a performance that certainly deserves mass recognition. Like many of Swanberg’s films, Happy Christmas is about real people, being real people and sort of taking life as it comes to them. It’s a unique style of film that really pays off!

Happy Christmas Trailer
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=njsI7SZGom8

3.5 STARS!!!

3.5 / 5 stars     

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