Not enough people know that Joe Swanberg makes good movies. I could excuse them for that because his movies don't really feel like movies as much as they feel like homemade camcorder moments captured by a new dad in the 70s. I mean that in a good way. Swanberg's movies are heavily improvised but that's not to say they are made up as they go. Improvisation gets a bad rap most of the time, as though it's only for comedy and even then is a little bit fake. Happy Christmas should put that cliche to rest. The story follows one young married couple as his sister, who has just broken up with her boyfriend and is more than a little bit unsteady in life, comes to visit. This isn't a melodramatic comedy of manners, and it isn't a sharp social commentary about class systems either. In fact it isn't really anything other than a glimpse into someone's life, but what a glimpse it is. Anna Kendrick is Jenny, the irresponsible younger sister who can't figure her life out but knows she needs something different. Melanie Lynskey plays Kelly, the wife of Swanberg's character, Jeff, while Lena Dunham as Jenny's friend Carson and Mark Webber as hapless babysitter, Kevin, round out the supporting cast.
Happy Christmas isn't a Christmas movie in any way, and in fact isn't a good title at all unless you want to dissect the meaning of the word, happy, which you shouldn't. Drinking Buddies was a better title, but no matter. Jenny is every person in their 20s still trying to figure out their life's mirrored image, and also every person in their 20s who has already figured out their life's nightmare. She is irresponsible, sure, but not in a malicious way. Her first night visiting her brother she goes out, gets blackout drunk, and destroys her reputation with her sister-in-law who doesn't want her near the baby. Then she starts smoking weed in the basement to the amusement of her brother.
Eventually she tries to earn back her respect. The thing is, I never once sided against her. I get it, she's not an irresponsible person, she just did an irresponsible thing. I understand her frustrations, her aimlessness. I also understand Kelly's concern, and I understand Carson's embarrassment at her friend's misbehaviour.
Swanberg isn't trying to be a visual boy-wonder and really he's more of a writer than a director, except that he gets consistently emotionally raw performances from his cast, which should keep him in the director's chair for years to come. He is exceptionally talented when it comes to understanding underlying emotions. Drinking Buddies, his previous film, was all about the subtleties of the line between friendship and something more - something most films overlook, something most people overlook. The truth is, real life is rarely so considerate to give us a clear definition of anything. For the millennial generation especially, Swanberg could be a bit of a icon, standing in for the post-college depression that comes with not knowing who you are in a world that demands you to pretend everything is laid out in black and white.
So let's talk briefly about the improvisation on display here and how naturally Swanberg gets his cast to pull it off. One of the main characters is Jude, Jeff and Kelly's two-year old, played by Swanberg's own son. Obviously the kid isn't acting, but the cast acts around him so perfectly you would actually forget that there's a camera present, and a script written. Everyone interacts with the baby as though he's a centrepiece holding the movie together, and more than anything else, Jude sells the realness that makes this film relatable. It's quite phenomenal to watch.
Ultimately, Happy Christmas is one of the hidden gems of its year. A bracingly honest film that simply takes us into the lives of others in a way that is so relatable and familiar we will forget we're watching a movie at all. It's good to have movies like this that can help us experience what it is like to be someone else, even if that someone else is more like us than we realize.