Originally published on The National Student on 28/01/15.
The insanely prolific master of mumblecore Joe Swanberg, returns with yet another ultra low-budget dramedy in surprise festive-flavoured treat Happy Christmas, that premieres in the UK on Netflix for the first time this week.
Continuing his ongoing trend of indie coming-of-age tales, Swanberg casts the ever-adorable Anna Kendrick as Jenny, a reckless twenty-something who finds herself forced to up-sticks and move in to her brother’s basement in order for a fresh start in Chicago. There, over the course of one Christmas she gradually begins to disrupt the simple lives of Jeff (Swanberg himself), his wife Kelly (an on-form Melanie Lynskey) and their young son Jude through a troublesome cocktail of frequent drinking, casual laziness and a generally irresponsible demeanor.
Characterised largely by its low-key humour, wavering plot and seemingly improvised dialogue, Happy Christmas has all the ear-marks of an independent Sundance favourite and registers as such really quite well. Few jokes hit particularly hard, but this can only be expected of a film that prides itself on being so (ironically for Kendrick’s character) relatively sober for the majority of its running-time. In fact, for those not readily-tuned in to the more understated approach Joe Swanberg regularly takes to his films, the muted photography and subdued performances may come as something of a disappointment, but rest assured there is considerable talent to be seen here. If anything, with such a bare-bones set-up, Swanberg’s film relies more on its actors than it does anything else.
Anna Kendrick’s lead Jenny is something of a risk in terms of characterisation. Introduced by her brother to the family as basically a thoughtless mess, her total care-free attitude could be a decidedly irritating factor, but luckily Kendrick masters the role with just the perfect amount of charm to land a Jenny that’s surprisingly easy to root for. Frequently under-rated Melanie Lynskey also provides the film with another winning performance in her ex-novelist housewife Kelly; a subtle and sympathetic role that comes laced with just as much courage as Kendrick’s. Surprisingly however, the largest dose of heart the film receives comes from Swanberg himself and his real-life baby son Jude. The natural chemistry shared between the pair gifts Happy Christmas with a fantastically personal feel that simply can’t be replicated.
Ultimately however, as is the case with many life orientated dramas, the film runs into a few major obstacles where plot is concerned. Aside from a handful of Jenny’s cringe-worthy antics, Happy Christmas feels somewhat wayward: there doesn’t seem to be much obvious progression. Despite some rather sweet revelations in the film’s third act, Swanberg’s script dances through the obvious hoops and hurdles in a seemingly never-ending cycle that, although entertaining to watch, shows little momentum in any direction. For those who value structure and closure from a film, this one really cannot come recommended.
This is not to say that Happy Christmas is in any way a bad film however. Overall, it stands as a loving testament to the mumblecore genre; a largely subdued dramedy with affecting performances and a sincerely heartfelt tone that marks it one-up on a great deal of other indie favourites. A must for fans of Swanberg and his compatriots, but to newbies it comes with a hipster-tinted word of warning: don’t be expecting any carefully structured melodrama any time soon.
Happy Christmas (2014), directed by Joe Swanberg, is available to stream on Netflix now.