Happy Christmas

Posted by Joel Copling on July 1, 2014

The so-called mumblecore movement that has taken the indie world by storm in much the same manner Dogme did not long ago is marked by a distinctly low-key, improvisational approach to naturalistic material. What tends to kill this sort of thing is if the material is unworthy of the tone. Take "Happy Christmas," writer/director Joe Swanberg's latest effort in the subgenre, which loads the format with a melodramatic reading of its characters, each of whom fits into a derivative type. They also do contrived things in a familiar landscape that just happens to possess effortless performances and a laid-back picaresque. Swanberg (who also co-stars) seems more confident in his ability to direct himself and his spotless actors than, as a writer, to create a scenario that actually resonates.

Kelly (Melanie Lynskey, who is very nearly awards-worthy here) and Jeff (Swanberg, a solid, stable core) are a one-time novelist and movie producer, respectively, whose lives have taken the inevitable "new parents" turn. She's now a stay-at-home mom with one desire (to make her toddler son's life a happy one with an involved maternal figure) colliding unfortunately with another (to write a follow-up novel to her first one, which, to hear the descriptions, was at least a creative success). He's less defined than she, but he's a supportive spouse who enjoys what he does and loves the heck out of his kid. Their lives are shaken up when his sister Jenny (Anna Kendrick, lovely as is always the case) comes to town; reckless and having just broken up with someone she thinks was emotionally attached to another woman, Jenny's a slacker who meets Kevin (Mark Webber) when the latter fills in as babysitting help and is soon caught up in a sort-of relationship based largely around marijuana.

"Happy Christmas" is, then, a meandering wait for the moment when Jenny must screw up in some way, because Swanberg's script and the actors' improvised addenda to it have formed characters whose fates are pretty much predestined. The entire situation, really, is a foregone conclusion waiting to happen, and no amount of laid-back ennui that mirrors real-life ennui can take away the film's contrived nature. At 78 minutes, it's short and mostly concise, though segments involving Jenny's friend Carson (Lena Dunham, who is admittedly a riot) come across as entirely unnecessary. There might be good actors building a low-key series of events, but the overall feeling one gets from it is shrug-worthy inconsequence.

Film Information

Melanie Lynskey (Kelly), Anna Kendrick (Jenny), Joe Swanberg (Jeff), Mark Webber (Kevin), Lena Denham (Carson).

Directed and written by Joe Swanberg.

Rated R (language, drug use, sexual content).

78 minutes.

Released in select cities on July 25, 2014.