Well, the season has finally changed and of course we know what that means - another Joe Swanberg film is due. One of the hardest working filmmakers in the indie scene, Swanberg has been delivering quality films since his debut, Kissing on the Mouth, in 2005. But it was last year, with the acclaimed Drinking Buddies, that put the director on the map. Keeping to his minimalist directorial approach and improvisational story telling, Buddies was the first time he enlisted Hollywood actors, a move that has paid off in his work. He returns now with Happy Christmas, a holiday-centric endeavor that certainly sticks to Swanberg’s proven formula.
Jeff and Kelly are a happily married couple in their 30's, raising their young child together. Jeff (Joe Swanberg) is the breadwinner, working within the film industry in Chicago, while Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) is the stay-at-home-mother who hasn't found the time to write her second novel. We soon learn that Jeff's sister Jenny (Anna Kendrick) is coming to stay with them after a break-up with hopes of moving to the city for a fresh start. She's young - in her 20's - but could be the saving grace Kelly needs in order to get a little more time to herself. But soon after her arrival, Jenny goes to a party with her friend Carson (Lena Dunham) and is incapable to leave after a lot too many, making her first night at her brother's a disastrous one.
Jenny is a bit of a mess, lacking in responsibility. This could be due to her newly found freedom/loneliness or her young age, but regardless Jeff and Kelly worry about having her around their child. Oddly, she begins to settle in when meeting their current last minute babysitter, the pot dealing musician Kevin (Mark Webber), and begins an attachment to both him and young Jude. And when she finally gets time to write, Jenny becomes the unexpected catalyst that Kelly needed to get back into the game. But perhaps that's not all, because at the core of this film its really about how these two women, although apprehensive about one another at first, impact each other’s lives in ways that we see onscreen and off.
Returning from Drinking Buddies, Anna Kendrick is wonderful here, delivering a subtle performance we haven't seen from her yet. Her counterpart, Melanie Lynskey stands out as well in her role as Kelly, and one can only hope we see more of her in the future. And Joe Swanberg once again shows he's just as good in front of the camera as he is behind it, but it's his son, Jude Swanberg that charms us above all the rest, providing the majority of the film's laughs. I envy the day that his mother and father show him the film, embarrassing the hell out of him, but assuring that he won over the audiences.
Happy Christmas is an unconventional holiday choice, but one that deals with family, trust, youth and growth. It's more akin to Drinking Buddies than his earlier works, but if Buddies is his most accessible film to date, Happy Christmas only shorts it by a hair. It's also Swanberg's first film actually shot on film, an odd but admirable choice based on his body of work. Perhaps its use might be a last ditch effort before the medium dissolves, but regardless, he and cinematographer Ben Richardson give the film a unique aesthetic with it's grainy super-16mm and use of available light that's just as beautiful as it is effective. So, if you'd like another unique and honest film this summer go celebrate Christmas in July. [A-]
Happy Christmas is available OnDemand and in theaters July 25.
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