Happy Christmas: Sundance Review

A dedicated focus on character development pays off with ample humor.

Anna Kendrick and Melanie Lynskey co-star in Joe Swanberg’s latest low-budget feature.

Following up last year’s Drinking Buddies with another low-key ensemble comedy, writer-director Joe Swanberg addresses relationship issues of increasing complexity without sacrificing his frequently amusing perspective on single life.

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After taking Happy Christmas off the market with a festival pre-buy, Magnolia Pictures can expect to see a fairly similar return on the new film by partnering with Swanberg again on a theatrical release (Paramount acquired home entertainment and international rights), with perhaps a bit of a bump from a gradually expanding fan base. 

Chicago married couple Jeff (Swanberg) and Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) are juggling freelance careers while looking after their two-year-old son, Jude (Jude Swanberg). Jeff’s working on a film in preproduction, but Kelly’s novel writing has stalled out after her first book as she's shifted to full-time homemaking. They're still relatively content, however, and preparing for a holiday visit from Jeff’s sister Jenny (Anna Kendrick), a volatile young woman who's recently split from her boyfriend. Jeff's concerned that even at 27, Jenny's not stable enough to look after herself and has invited her for an indefinite visit. In exchange, she's agreed to assist with child care.

Almost from her arrival, however, Jenny demonstrates that she’s still too immature to be reliable. After attending a house party with her local friend Carson (Lena Dunham), she gets ridiculously wasted and passes out on the party hostess' bed. Jeff's forced to go collect her in the middle of the night, which significantly diminishes Kelly's level of confidence about entrusting Jude's care to her young sister-in-law. Fortunately, Jeff negotiates a fresh start for Jenny, who pulls her act together enough to convince her hosts that she's capable of looking after their son. 

As her relationship with Kelly improves, Jenny encourages her to get back to writing, although with an entirely new plan, which involves temporarily setting aside her second novel. Together with Carson, Jenny persuades Kelly to start writing a trashy romance featuring frequent, semi-explicit sexual situations as a strategy for making some quick cash. As Jenny appears to be getting her life marginally back on track, even starting to tentatively date Jeff and Kelly's babysitter (and pot dealer) Kevin (Mark Webber) and look for her own apartment, she’s equally prone to staggeringly stupid lapses of judgment that could still result in a serious rift with her brother and his wife.

Swanberg's modest script lays out some fairly mundane domestic situations, which the actors elevate with a collaborative style characterized by gentle humor and authentic, frequently overlapping dialogue. Kendrick slips effortlessly into the role of Jeff's screw-up younger sister who provokes Lynskey's blossoming as the young mother and novelist emerging from her domestic shell.

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Dunham's contribution is fairly minor, but effective, and in his supporting role Swanberg obviously has great rapport with his often funny young son Jude, but there's far too much time devoted to scenes featuring the boy that don't advance the plot. By frequently shooting single-camera, handheld setups, Swanberg is able to simplify the filmmaking and focus primarily on character development. Prioritizing practical locations and substituting film for ubiquitous DV gives the production a suitably low-budget look, although low-light situations sometimes lack for detail.

Production: Tiki Bar Films
Cast: Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Mark Webber, Lena Dunham, Joe Swanberg, Jude Swanberg
Director-screenwriter: Joe Swanberg
Producers: Peter Gilbert, Joe Swanberg
Director of photography: Ben Richardson
Editor: Joe Swanberg
No rating, 78 minutes