Moving from what ended up becoming an immensely popular (in Joe Swanberg standards) hit in Drinking Buddies, Swanberg continues to carry a story through a minimized location and cast with his latest, Happy Christmas. Expanding a role for Anna Kendrick, who starred in Drinking Buddies also, Swanberg allows Kendrick to move around and act more than any of her roles since 50/50 making for a solid family drama that connects more because of the realism steeped in it rather than an actual, fully realized story arc, which is something that tailed off even in Drinking Buddies.
Happy Christmas starts with Jenny (Kendrick) moving in with her brother Jeff (Swanberg) and his wife Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) who have just recently had a baby. Jenny is in arrested development and initially does not show a willingness to break out of it. On her first night, she goes to a party with her friend Carson (Lena Dunham) and ends up drunk and passed out on the host’s bed forcing Jeff and Carson to extract her from the house.
Kendrick is able to sell the role that seems like a mesh between her honest, Twitter-fueled personality that includes small quips and insights into her every day life. In one scene, she joins Kelly who is working on writing her latest novel. Jenny springs the idea that Kelly should write an erotic novel in order to make so cash so she can free herself up more time to focus on her real passion book. Jenny talks extensively about how if she would include sex in her book, it would instantly become her favorite book, quipping that she would buy five books for her friends but end up keeping them.
This conversation between Kendrick and Lynskey seemed organic and something that Kendrick would come up with based on her online personality. It works well for the film because it gives the audience something to relate and build off of for Kendrick’s Jenny. On the flip side, Jenny can also seem like a drunk and high version of Kendrick and differentiating the two is tough.
But Swanberg’s script allows for growth and while, like Drinking Buddies, the characters never hit that point where their growth is fully realized, Happy Christmas at least allows for some idea that reconciliation is on the way. Jenny is sorry for her behavior and while she makes strides to change, the end foreshadows that she has a lot left to do. Kendrick reminds me of Olivia Wilde’s character in Drinking Buddies in that she shows movement but never the finish line.
I think this must be how Swanberg works, always showing us that progress is happening but the end of the road is a long ways away and the movie can’t capture it all. I think it is a neat thing to do this and create these characters trying desperately to hold off on full adult responsibilities but learning in the end that maybe a few more steps is along the way. Jenny understand this and while her short talk with Kelly at the end maybe ended the fight between the couple and her, it didn’t solve Jenny’s overarching problem and that is left unknown.
But Swanberg leaves us with enough to know that somewhere along the road, Jenny will figure it out and the trip is not yet over for this family.
Happy Christmas is another strong addition by Swanberg and shows that his style of filmmaking is working. Kendrick shines in the lead role and is given a lot to work with and succeeds. She creates a character that is flawed and annoyingly immature but one who you can’t help but love because it really is Anna Kendrick. It doesn’t have the emotional weight that Drinking Buddies and Wilde’s performance had but it is a sweet film with a message that can speak to those in transit in life.