Happy Christmas is Joe Swanberg’s most satisfying film to date. It is definitely a worthy follow-up to last year’s equally enjoyable Drinking Buddies. This film is a nice little portrait of a middle class family set during the Christmas holidays in the city of Chicago. Despite a somewhat slow start, the film beautifully highlights the angst we commonly experience in adulthood and looks into the struggle between maintaining a creative life while being a parent to a toddler. Well in this case, perhaps two toddlers.
The movie starts off with a peak into the comfortable life of Jeff (Joe Swanberg) who works in film production, his wife Kelly (Melanie Lynsky), a novelist with a serious case of writer’s block and their two year old son Jude (who is actually Joe’s real life son). Things get shaken up by the arrival of Jeff’s younger sister Jenny (Anna Kendrick), who is reeling from a recent breakup.
Rather than spending the first night in town with her family, Jenny decides to go attend a party with her friend Carson (Lena Dunham). She then proceeds to get so plastered that Jeff gets an emergency phone call to come rescue his drunken sister. This unsettles Kelly as she fears Jenny’s irresponsible behaviour would put baby Jude in danger. Jenny does make an effort to gain Kelly’s trust but her tendency to make silly decisions and her budding relationship with the pot-dealing babysitter Kevin (Mark Webber) doesn’t help.
This dysfunctional family comedy may not be groundbreaking, but the film leaves a nice lasting impression due to the wonderfully well-crafted performances from all the actors involved, especially when the leading ladies start ringing off each other in their semi-improvised moments. In the film, there is a subplot where Kelly is trying to get her creative juices going and produce a new novel. Jenny suggests that she should write an erotic novel for some quick money. When Jenny’s friend Carson tags along and they start brainstorming ideas, that’s when the film really hits its stride. Joe Swanberg is smart to let the trio do their thing and give them the space to let that dialogue flow. In fact, there is so much material, that he throws in a very enjoyable reprise during the end credits.
Anna Kendrick is truly the star of the movie. Despite daring to make Jenny an unsympathetic character, there’s a certain charm to her that makes us all want to go in and help set Jenny on the right path. Jenny’s downcast looks during the morning after moments signifies how embarrassed she is of her own actions despite the fact that she doesn’t verbally apologize for her actions. The other scene-stealer is Joe’s son Jude. All he had to do was shove some Cheerios into his mouth and it charms everyone in the theatre as you hear collective “aww’s”.
The biggest stumbling block in the movie is actually the ending. It’s quite fine not to have everything tied up into a neat bow like other Hollywood films. Unfortunately, it felt a bit too easy to simply overlook another one of Jenny’s trespasses. Without spoiling what really happens, let’s just say it leaves us all thinking “that’s it?!” The world would definitely be a much happier place if we all didn’t hold grudges.
Joe Swanberg has been categorized into representing a type of independent filmmaking known as ‘mumblecore’, which is known for its minimalistic production values and amateur actors. Sure you can definitely tell that Happy Christmas is a low budget film but the acting performances are far from amateur. What makes this film so wonderful is that through the semi-improvised storytelling and stellar acting, everything seemed so effortless and natural. At times it doesn’t feel like we’re are watching a film but merely observing like a fly on the wall. The actors interact so well with each other that the relationships feel genuine. As the story unfolds, everything just falls into place like life itself. It all just happens and we’re simply enjoying the ride.
Fun facts from the Q&A post screening:
- The whole subplot regarding the Kelly writing an erotic novel stems from one time when Joe Swanberg busted one of his friends trying to hide the fact she was reading 50 Shades of Grey.
- Mr. Swanberg has never heard of Anna Kendrick prior to seeing the film 50/50, in which she plays a trainee psychologist and romantic interest to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character. He did not know who she was but liked her performance so much that he wanted to cast her in Drinking Buddies. It was only after a Googling session, then he found out that she was kinda popular and she was nominated for an Oscar.
- Mr. Swanberg noticed that Anna Kendrick was normally cast as the Type A character and thought it would be interesting to make her do something that was the complete opposite. He claims that her role in his next film will make her even more unlikable. He joked about making a career out of degrading Anna Kendrick by casting her in these roles.
- Music was played live in the space while filming, which apparently drove the sound guy nuts.
- Mr. Swanberg worked with a crew of 5 behind the camera. He says that the actors actually outnumbered the crew.
- The movie was filmed in 16mm, which gave it a more traditional vibe.
- Mr. Swanberg worked in a 4:1 ratio due to budget constraints. That is maximum of 4 takes per scene.
- Happy Christmas was inspired by Mr. Swanberg’s real life brother and his home life. He essentially “stole shit that really happened”.
- The Cheerios scene involving his son took 3 shots and all three shots looked almost identical. The continuity was “amazing”.
- The movie was actually shot in his own home.