Director Joe Swanberg has carved himself a niche as the go-to guy for independently produced character driven films. He isn’t bound by a particular genre, just creates these rich characters who live and breathe in his world. Happy Christmas is another example of his strong points as a filmmaker while assembling a dream cast for any director to salivate over. The film genuinely feels as if it’s just a slice of life, like we’re peeking through the windows of this slightly dysfunctional family.
Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) and Jeff (Joe Swanberg) are a young couple in Chicago who are trying to raise their two year old son. It isn’t always easy for them and their careers. Kelly has pretty much put the writing of her second novel on hold in order to raise their child. Jeff invites his sister Jenny (Anna Kendrick) to live with them and to help Kelly as much as she can with the housework and little Jude (Jude Swanberg). As it turns out, the twenty seven year old has some serious growing up to do. Her first night in Chicago she gets so wasted at a house party she passes out and her brother has to get her. This incident raises caution with Kelly who begins to think it was a bad idea to have her there. Eventually, Jenny helps to inspire Kelly to write and the two of them start to form a bond.
From what I understand, much of this film is improvised and is all the better for it. The uncomfortable silences feel real, the interactions have added authenticity, and surprise actions illicit genuine laughter. One of Swanberg’s greatest achievements with this film was casting Melanie Lynskey in a lead role. She’s such a brilliant and under-appreciated actress who deserves to be seen far more often. With her explosive debut in Peter Jackson’s brilliant Heavenly Creatures, she has proven time and again to be one of the finest actresses of her generation. Anna Kendrick is on a hot streak right now, aside from being highly sought after, it’s great to see her taking the time to do these little films to push her boundaries as an actress. Swanberg himself has some deliciously sweet scenes with Lynskey and I love their rapport together. Mark Webber and Lena Dunham have much smaller roles but their impact on the picture is felt throughout. Joe’s son Jude is absolutely adorable and tends to be a bit of a scene stealer.
Swanberg should also be commended for shooting on 16mm film. It’s so much more convenient to shoot digital but his choice pays off with an authentic and grainy looking film, paying homage to the character driven dramas of the seventies (pay attention to the opening and end credits). The film isn’t without flaws but it’s far more entertaining than the dreck which passes for dramatic comedies at the multiplex these days. Happy Christmas will win you over with brilliant acting and a story most of us can relate to.