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Entries in Happy Christmas [2014] (1)


Happy Christmas (2014)

Motivation X

Joe Swanberg needs to focus. In the last couple years, the Chicago filmmaker has dabbled in acting, writing, directing, and generally spreading his creative seed as far as the winds of newfound indie fame will take him. I don't hold this against Swanberg, of course. He is, as they say, living the dream.

But, strictly speaking as an audience member who's experienced a lot of his output lately, I can say that not all of his endeavors are worthwhile. Running around with Ti West and Adam Wingard has landed him in horror projects ranging from passable (V/H/S) to disappointing (24 Exposures) to excerable (The Sacrament). The blood, guts, and hipster-melodrama scene may be a fun diversion, but Swanberg's true talents lie in capturing the aimlessness of a generation that was never told to grow up (or even how to)--and making his characters' fictitious lives feel as relatable as our own memories.

The writer/director's latest, Happy Christmas, is the keenly observed, heartfelt version of pop culture's ubiquitous, faux "Millennial Pulse" parade. Every other mass-market trailer, TV show, and movie seems to feature at least one drunk, broke, directionless twenty-something woman whose pathological whining prevents them from moving forward.* Worse yet, these anti-heroines are coddled and/or feared by people who should ostensibly know better.

Not so in the case of Jenny (Anna Kendrick), whose arrival on her brother's basement couch after a break-up elicits more glares than sympathy. Jeff (Swanberg) is understanding on the first night, re-introducing li'l sis to her toddler nephew (the filmmaker's real-life son, Jude) and showing off the tiki bar motif of her new underground pad. Things turn sour after a middle-of-the-night phone call from Jenny's best friend, Carson (Lena Dunham): an obliterated Jenny passed out in the middle of a party, and will remain immobile until Jeff can swoop in to take her home.

Sometime the next day, Jenny awakens to find a guy named Kevin (Mark Webber) watching her nephew--a task she'd promised her sister-in-law, Kelly (Melanie Lynskey), she'd be up for. Yep, there's a talking-to in Jenny's future (a few, in fact), as well as a series of uncomfortable encounters that will ensure she shakes off whatever relational residue remains from her ex, on the path to acting like she belongs in a world of functional adults with actual lives and profound struggles.

Don't worry: Happy Christmas isn't nearly as heavy-handed in its assertions as I've been in this review. Swanberg masterfully shows and doesn't tell, placing Jenny in a number of situations that have been played for laughs in lesser projects. From her alcoholism and drug use to her lack of consideration for her hosts' time and property, Jenny's poisonous wallowing is confronted at every turn--with love foremost and judgment second. Jeff and Kelly have been close to where she is, we get the feeling, but understand that twenty-seven is far too old to louse about on someone else's dime.

The narrative balances out beautifully, as we get frequent glimpses of the smart, charming, intelligent spirit buried beneath Jenny's slacker muck. She tags along on Kelly's early Christmas present from Jeff: a run of ten eight-hour days in which she has full reign of his empty movie-production office, where she can begin re-invigorating her career as a novelist. In her capacity as a stay-at-home mom, Kelly's life has taken on new meaning, but she wrestles with the attendant lack of creative drive, ambition, and time. Unsure of the company at first, Kelly grows to love Jenny's optimism and cheerleading of her talents, and the two wind up collaborating on a trashy romance book together.  

I don't know how much of Happy Christmas was written and how much was improvised by the actors at Swanberg's direction. The film is one of those rare gems that feels un-scripted; truly a slice of life, down to its untidy but emotionally and intellectually satisfying resolution.

Fans of Swanberg's similarly themed, relatively high-profile hit, last year's Drinking Buddies, may walk away frustrated by the looseness of the dialogue (there are more "like"s here than in the history of Facebook); while others might be put off by the decidedly messy, grown-up, and seemingly mundane nature of the central conflict. But for those who navigate the everyday horror movies of making ends meet, raising children, and staying creatively engaged in life, Happy Christmas will serve as a reassuring beacon of recognition in an entertainment landscape awash in the unwashed and unmotivated.

*The tell is in the arrested-development titles: Girls, 2 Broke Girls, Obvious Child. It's hard to pinpoint where intentional irony ends and cosmic meta-commentary begins.

**(Jason Voorhees has nothing on the commercial artist's existential crisis)