Just about every family has a black sheep, someone who goes against the grain and tends to annoy the heck out of his or her relatives. Though irritating and a burden, this individual can be full of life, piss and vinegar, making for a very colorful and downright entertaining character. This type of person has been brought to life on screen many times before but in the new dramedy Happy Christmas, we see a more realistic side to this controversial personality.
With writer/director/actor Joe Swanberg’s beautifully documentary-esque filmmaking style, Happy Christmas is a film that takes a cute bit of fiction and makes it feel very real. Swanberg pushed for an almost completely improvised method from the actors, making the film’s plot seem as though it’s actually happening as it’s being filmed. The story isn’t impressive or anything groundbreaking. It focuses on Jeff (Swanberg) and Kelly (Melanie Lynskey of Two and Half Men fame) and their two-year-old son (played by Swanberg’s real-life son). They live a cozy existence, that is until Jenny shows up, Jeff’s younger and slightly wild sister played by Anna Kendrick.
The film focuses on Jeff and Kelly as try to adapt to Jenny who has come to stay with them for a while. Jenny’s rambunctious ways are a nuisance to the wholesome couple who are trying to provide a safe home for their child. Jenny stirs things up a bit when she gets overly intoxicated at a party. This then raises the question of whether or not Jenny should stay with them.
Happy Christmas is a simple film with little to no point. Swanberg has created a world firmly grounded in reality and with the actors improvising most of their lines, it feels like someone just left their cell phone camera on as everyone sits around and converses. Even the audio sounds cheap but it all contributes to the documentary style of the film.
The three lead actors do a fine job in the film. They aren’t really acting, so it’s a treat seeing them with their hair down. Movies these days rely on explosions and ridiculously complicated science fiction elements. Happy Christmas is a far cry from this tired, standard Hollywood formula. A film like this relies on people, human beings with genuine emotions.
Independent dramedies are the rawest, most sincere forms of film storytelling. Movies like Happy Christmas are a welcome delight for cinephiles. They focus on believable relationships and don’t shy away from awkward silences and flawed characters. Swanberg delved into this world with 2013’s Drinking Buddies and the results there were actually a lot better. Happy Christmas means well and features some of the most realistic scenes shot for a movie in quite some time but the story is bland and the plot, sort of pointless. The only saving grace here are the performances of each of the actors, especially Kendrick, who is no stranger to quirk comedies. Even Girls’ Lena Dunham provides some kooky comic relief as Jenny’s fun gal pal.
Happy Christmas may only be 82 minutes long but it feels a lot longer and it isn’t a bad movie, per say. It just doesn’t feature a strong enough plot to satisfy the standard moviegoer. It is a dramedy in every sense of the word and will probably get better with age. It will fall under the radar now but hopefully, in time, it will gain a cult following. More movies should be made this way and with Swanberg at the helm, success is pretty much guaranteed.