Reel Women: Anna Kendrick Is a Charming Woman-Child in ‘Happy Christmas’
Writer and director Joe Swanberg reunites with his ‘Drinking Buddies’ star Anna Kendrick for ‘Happy Christmas,’ an intimate indie dramedy in which Kendrick stars as a willfully regressive 27 year-old who moves in with her older brother and his wife, only to throw their world into (minor) upheaval. A charming counterpoint to popular man-child narratives, Swanberg’s latest asks not for sympathy for its main character, but merely identification and a little empathy.
Recently heartbroken from the end of a long-term relationship, Jenny (Kendrick), moves to Chicago to temporarily stay with her filmmaker brother Jeff (Swanberg) and his lovely wife Kelly (Melanie Lynskey), a stay-at-home mother struggling to find time to work on her next novel. Jenny is irresponsible and willfully regressive, drinking and smoking pot and hooking up with the hot babysitter (Mark Webber), avoiding and covering up her problems rather than directly addressing them. Ignore something long enough and it will go away on its own, but we know what Jenny knows deep down: this isn’t the truth. No matter how much you drown your problems or smoke them out or indulge in more pleasant distractions, they’re still there in the morning when everything else evaporates.
In the great tradition of recent woman-child narratives like ‘Bridesmaids’ and ‘Bachelorette,’ ‘Happy Christmas’ doesn’t ask us to sympathize with Jenny’s irresponsible tendencies, but we can’t help but identify with her. Jeff asks Kelly early on to remember what she was like at Jenny’s age, and if we stop and recall what we were all like a little younger, a little less wiser, when the world didn’t ask as much from us, we can empathize. It’s easy to hit the self-destruct button when you’re already down and out; it’s a mixture of self-loathing and fear and a refusal to accept a new reality, but it’s also not giving a damn about what happens to you now since the one person you thought cared about you left you in the dust. Jenny doesn’t talk much about her ex-boyfriend, and she doesn’t need to because the story is familiar to all of us who have had our hearts broken. If we’re honest, we’ve all been Jenny.
Kendrick’s incredibly likable and down to earth demeanor makes Jenny that much more easier to forgive throughout her screw-ups, and Swanberg’s verite style lends a comforting, lived-in intimacy that allows us to fill in the blanks and feel as though we know these characters and their histories as well as a close relative. Melanie Lynskey’s performance as Kelly is equally if not more charming than Kendrick’s — this isn’t just a story about Jenny’s frustratingly regressive womanhood in the face of heartbreak; this is a story about Kelly, a novelist who put her dreams on hold to raise a family, and the way that Kelly’s youthful presence inspires and reinvigorates her both as a woman and as a writer.
Jenny isn’t all fault and fumbles: her freedom and naiveté allow her to see the world from angles that Kelly, a woman bound more now by maternal instinct and a familial drive, isn’t as inclined to perceive. Their relationship forms the real basis of the film, as each woman has traits the other desires or lacks. For all the bad Jenny does to herself, she’s a good influence on Kelly; if only she could take those good qualities and mine them to improve her own situation. But it’s easier to give advice than to take it for yourself. Kelly and Jenny form an interesting pairing, and the way Kelly is simultaneously frustrated and enamored by her sister-in-law is a fascinating examination of the complexity of female relationships.
Swanberg’s collaboration with Lynskey and Kendrick (and supporting star Lena Dunham, who pops in for a few rather humorous scenes) is an exceedingly charming look at the intricate lives of women, and definitely a hidden treasure to be sought out this summer in the midst of big action blockbusters. It’s not often that we get to see the flip side of the coin — so often films focus on the immaturities of men and their struggles to grow up, the conflicts they face, and how a woman walks into their life and changes it for the better. It’s rare that we embrace that women can be regressive and also struggle with maturity, and that sometimes a woman walks into another woman’s life and changes it for the better.
‘Happy Christmas’ is available now on VOD and in theaters in limited release on July 25.