At this point, it’s my assumption that Joe Swanberg’s method of filmmaking is powered by some behind the scenes cult action, as the indie rockstar cranks out multiple features a year featuring casts with more and more celebrity faces. His films are focused on the lives of real people in everyday situations, blurring the lines of drama and “mumblecore,” but Swanberg somehow seems to captivate viewers despite not having flashy special effects, blockbuster moments, or raunchy attention-grabbers like so many mainstream films competing with his humble projects do.
His latest, Happy Christmas, doesn’t deviate from such a basic formula, and much like Drinking Buddies, once again brings audiences a movie they can relate to wholeheartedly – without being put to sleep in the process. There’s something to be said about genuine, feel-good filmmaking, a message Swanberg heroically delivers.
Jeff (Swanberg) and Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) are a typical suburban couple raising a wonderful baby boy, dealing with the daily problems of so many Americans in similar situations. Jeff goes to work every day to support his family, Kelly stays at home to care for their child, and both go about their set routines – until Jeff’s sister Jenny (Anna Kendrick) moves in while searching for a new apartment. A 20-something year old with a much more irresponsible lifestyle, Jenny struggles to remain restrained in the more domestic setting, as Kelly fears for her child’s safety considering even the slightest slip-up (an open door/an accidental fire). Can Jenny get her act together, or will her wild ways be too much for her brother’s family to handle?
Swanberg has his finger on the pulse of America, with Happy Christmas being his most successfully relatable movie to date. There’s nothing sinister about Jenny’s insertion into the lives of a happily married couple, characters don’t hold vile secrets beyond anything any of us have dealt with, and a lovably grounded story never gravitates towards crazier Hollywood insanity that never would allow itself into our actual lives. Kendrick plainly plays a woman-child, a confused soul who occasionally gets blackout drunk while attempting to deal with her own inner quarrels, but her character Jenny can never be considered a “bad person.” She’s no villain. In Jenny, we see a reflection of ourselves acting out our most vulnerable moments, creating a connective bond between audiences and the obviously weakened character.
Most of the time we rely on movies as escapist entertainment, traveling to worlds unknown for fantastical adventures, but sometimes it’s nice when a film reminds us that the problems we dwell upon are actually shared throughout humanity – and life moves on. Honestly, have I been that drunken version of Jenny after a particularly abusive week? Haven’t we all let our emotions get the better of us? Happy Christmas is knowingly crafted to explain that everyone struggles, slips up, and loses judgement, yet family remains constant no matter what. In a time of overcomplicated plotting and twisty, sneaky “reveals,” Swanberg’s sincerely simplified filmmaking masters the art of feel-good elation by recreating our rawest, most subtle emotional experiences. Happy Christmas is like a warm, comforting hug from your beloved Grandma – whatever the hell that means.
Swanberg’s biggest accomplishment this time around is tackling Jeff and Kelly’s lifestyle choices without over-dramatizing any problems between the two. Both characters are realists, blissfully in love and emphatically engaged with raising their young bundle of joy, and when Kelly expresses her desire for some quiet writing time (being a one-hit-wonder novelist), Happy Christmas doesn’t turn into a dark melodrama about a neutered, stifled father and a wife who starts drifting away because of her professional career. No, Jeff and Kelly are a true American couple, and Jeff’s efforts to grant all his wife’s wishes represent a reassuring breath of fresh air, as movies nowadays make us think every man is a cheater, every woman is a manipulative she-devil, and relationships are genuinely doomed. Creating false drama is easy, but it takes true grace to navigate life’s soft, lovable core with such a delicate eye. Thanks for staying positive, Joe Swanberg!
Happy Christmas enables Swanberg to film in a minimal amount of locations and with a much grittier feel, almost like you’re watching home movies from a real, living family. The shots are never particularly long, the settings never overly showy, and each scene runs largely on each actor’s ability to command simple dialogue exchanges and conversations. Surprisingly, the most able actor about the bunch ends up being Joe Swanberg’s actual son, who flashes showmanship years beyond his assumed 2-year-old capacity. OK, I’m not totally serious, as Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Mark Webber, and Swanberg themselves deliver the goods each scene, but the littlest Swanberg toys with his co-stars, actually displaying comedic timing and a hilarious personality. Papa should be proud, because not many child actors even factor into a film’s overall quality beyond cuteness.
Thanks to Joe Swanberg, you have the perfect reason to celebrate Christmas in the summertime by watching his heartwarming dramedy, which surprisingly doesn’t have that much to do with our favorite winter holiday despite the title Happy Christmas. Anna Kendrick shines in a role completely reversing her straight-laced Drinking Buddies character, letting her devious alcoholic side bust free, but it’s Swanberg’s intimate connection with Lynskey that steals the show – well, that and Baby Swanberg. Happy Christmas is a story that validates questions in our own lives Hollywood typically deals with in more asinine, unrealistic ways, only elevating Swanberg’s homely, rustic storytelling in comparison. Everyone loves a happy ending – especially one bursting with heart and soul.
When a filmmaker is able to successfully translate reality to screen, something special happens. Happy Christmas is that uniquely special "something," as Swanberg's grounded style of filmmaking has never been sharper.