As Joe Swanberg matures as a filmmaker, he's looking at what happens to the Mumblecore generation once they get older: They're not yet middle-aged, but they're also no longer comfortably in the aimless twentysomething sweet spot that once defined the genre. In the very good “Happy Christmas,” which premiered in competition at Sundance, wife and mother Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) is burdened with too many responsibilities, while her younger and wilder sister-in-law Jenny (Anna Kendrick, "Drinking Buddies") is burdened with too few.
Jenny is a mess. Having broken up with her boyfriend, she comes to stay with her brother Jeff (played by Swanberg) and Kelly at their home in Chicago while she figures out what her next move is. Jenny has a drinking problem, and blacks out at a party the night of her arrival. After this sloppy first impression, Kelly’s wary of letting Jenny live in their basement, and worried that Jenny could in some way be harmful to their baby boy, Jude (played by Swanberg’s actual son, a robustly-proportioned little fellow also named Jude, who steals every scene he's in).
As a filmmaker, Swanberg has a talent for creating lived-in female characters, and for collaborating with actresses who can winningly roll with his improv-heavy style. “Happy Christmas” is no different. Lynskey and Kendrick work as physical and emotional foils to one another. Lynskey is tall and dark, and soft-spoken with a Kiwi accent. She communicates Kelly’s quiet, resigned frustration at having settled into the stay-at-home-mom role, which has kept her from writing a follow-up novel to the one she wrote several years back. Meanwhile Kendrick, tiny and vivacious, is believable as Jenny, whose emotional neediness and selfish lack of purpose covers up an unhappy soul.
If Kelly has functionally grown into her thirties (even if she's glum about the freedoms it's afforded her), then Jenny is still banging around anxiously in the latter half of her twenties, knowing she should be moving forward. When the two begin brainstorming an erotic novel together (this plot twist doesn’t play as strangely as it sounds), something clicks. Jenny's over-consumption of life is the jolt Kelly needs, while Jenny needs Kelly’s stability.
This is all set against the backdrop of Chicago at Christmastime. Swanberg reunites with “Drinking Buddies” cinematographer Ben Richardson, who here shoots in handheld 16mm. As a result, the film (more lo-fi and less sleek than "Drinking Buddies") has a rich, grainy look that recalls cheery, cluttered holiday photos from an earlier time, maybe the 1980s. The holidays typically work in cinema as a boiling-point: family members clash and unspoken issues come to a head. "Happy Christmas" fits into that tradition in a pleasingly Swanberg-esque way. On the outside is a messy exterior that belies the focused heart of the film. Characters offset each other in a sharp way that only a honed filmmaker can achieve, while dysfunction and love (and there's a lot of both) are skillfully kept in balance.
"Happy Christmas" was snapped up for distribution pre-Sundance by Magnolia and Paramount.