People get sad. People get lonely and disinterested. People become bitter and easily agitated and rely on vices no matter how destructive. People like to laugh and relax with friends and maybe have a drink or two whether it is whiskey or beer. Humans are destined to live roller coaster lives all of which makes Happy Christmas so interesting because it takes what could be a mundane story for the cinematic world and connects us to the characters. There is a refreshing authenticity to the film’s characters that allows any fault in the underwritten narrative to be nearly forgotten: we’re watching people find sparks in their lives.
Jenny (Anna Kendrick) has come to live with her brother Jeff, his wife Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) and their two year old son. Jenny is a 20-something who is into partying hard and is currently emotionally unstable, like most 20-somethings while Kelly and Jeff have reached a calmer, more confident area of their lives despite everyday concerns. Kelly, a novelist who has had to put aside her writing to take care of her son, is inspired by Jenny’s energy and the two build a friendship over time spent together. That’s it, that’s the plot. Jenny also begins a kind of, sort of romance with her pot dealer but the real relationship focus of the film is between Kelly and Jenny.
Joe Swanberg has proven with this and last year’s Drinking Buddies that he knows how to tell stories about friendship which, surprisingly, is a relationship avenue often not told. When Jenny first arrives at her brother’s, she goes out at night with a friend (Lena Dunham), gets passed out drunk and refuses to move from the host’s bed until her brother has to come and carry her out. Things are off to a rocky start and Kelly isn’t sure she can trust Jenny to be safe around her son, but soon after a beer or two, Kelly loosens up and tells Jenny that she doesn’t just want to be a mom, she doesn’t want to be wearing her pajamas all day. She grows envious of Jeff getting to continue on with his career so Jenny pushes her into getting some time for herself.
The acting is pointedly natural with all of the characters interacting in a fashion that befits real life. They stumble over their words, make awkward, half-assed apologies and sometime don’t have anything to say at all. Kendrick in particular draws focus due to her character’s energy as well as her onscreen charisma because even when we agree with Jeff and Kelly that she’s selfish or rude, we can’t help but enjoy her character. Lynskey is always great, and if you haven’t it yet, I’d advise you to go watch the film Hello, I Must Be Going – she isn’t given as much to do here but she’s a welcome presence and she and Kendrick share a warm chemistry.
Swanberg’s films aren’t always easy to enjoy. They move at a glacial pace (aside from last year’s more commercial Drinking Buddies), the stakes are never that high, the characters are never put in any real troublesome situation and the handheld, homemade style of the filming process could be irritating to some who feel the style has run its course. The film certainly has its drawbacks- Dunham’s character is unfunny and sticks out from a more relaxed cast and the writing often leads us in circles.
However, don’t simply dismiss this film if it doesn’t fit your typical style. It’s a lovely film with characters you’ll understand and issues and consequences you’ll relate to. We are only getting a snapshot at an ordinary life, and like our own, they go on when the movie ends.
Happy Christmas hits theaters July 25th but for now you can check it out on Video on Demand or Amazon.