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‘Happy Christmas’ Review

Happy Christmas Sundance
Magnolia Pictures

There’s a moment in ‘Happy Christmas’ when Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey and Lena Dunham have a few cocktails in a basement converted to a tiki bar, and that moment quietly strikes gold. The scene – three woman jawing about the balance of work and life – doesn’t gear up to be some big emotional breakthrough. It just happens au naturale, unladen with political pamphleteering or, quite frankly, even looking for any solutions. It is a great microcosm of Joe Swanberg‘s newest film. Insight does occasionally spring from this movie in what looks like an effortless fashion, but the movie as a whole looks like hardly any effort went into it.

Anna Kendrick (Jenny) is visiting her brother Jeff (Swanberg) and his wife Kelly (Lynskey) for a holiday visit and also to get her life in order. Some stray lines of dialogue explain that she recently broke up with her boyfriend. A few scenes show that she has a bit of a problem with booze and weed – enough that Kelly doesn’t feel comfortable letting her take care of their two year old son without someone else popping in. (The baby, Joe and filmmaker Kris Swanberg’s actual kid is one of the funniest movie babies ever. The things he does with Cheerios!)

But Jenny being around the house, and going out with her pals to get wasted, is enough of a disruption for Kelly to realize that being a new mother is sucking her time dry, keeping her from her goal of writing a second novel. She’s able to find an empty office to spend some time during the week to work and Jenny, after a few dates with her pot dealer (Mark Webber), feels confident enough to pepper Kelly with some story ideas.

Unless I’m forgetting something, that’s the plot of this movie. Luckily it is shot on 16mm film so that gives it a little edge over the typical low budget gab-fest. Don’t look for confrontation, don’t look for resolution. The characters move to trust one another, then hurt one another a little and then try to handle it. Swanberg doubles-down on Kendrick being a good performer rather than actually giving her much to do. By and large this is successful, because Kendrick is just that good. But just imagine how great this movie could have been? Imagine Anna Kendrick in a classic indie like Ashley Judd in ‘Ruby in Paradise’ or even Adepero Oduye in the recent ‘Pariah.”

Due to his fierce independence and the observational, plot-light nature of his films there are some jokers who like to compare Joe Swanberg to John Cassavetes. This should be considered hate speech. Cassavetes’ films, desultory though they sometimes are, have a vitality in nearly every scene – with conflict and ingenuity crackling under the surface of every drawn-out conversation. ‘Happy Christmas’ has mild amusement in its finest moments. With a 78 minute running time, it is difficult to get angry at this movie – and, it bears repeating, the baby is real cute – but this is an agreeable snack, not a meal.‘Happy Christmas’ premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.

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