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Sundance Review: Joe Swanberg Keeps Maturing with Strong Family Comedy 'Happy Christmas'

Photo of Beth Hanna By Beth Hanna | Thompson on Hollywood January 20, 2014 at 11:24AM

As Joe Swanberg matures as a filmmaker, he's beginning to look 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.
"Happy Christmas"
"Happy Christmas"

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).

"Happy Christmas"
"Happy Christmas"

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.

This article is related to: Reviews, Reviews, Sundance Film Festival, Joe Swanberg, Joe Swanberg, Joe Swanberg, Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Happy Christmas, Festivals

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.