Anna Kendrick was good in Drinking Buddies, but she’s better in Happy Christmas. This time, in another work of director Joe Swanberg, she plays the lead: a bubbly, if irresponsible, 27-year-old named Jenny, who’s moved to Chicago after breaking up with her boyfriend. She stays in the Windy City with her brother (played by Swanberg), and the film focuses on her struggle to balance her youthful energy with the realpolitik of growing up. And despite what the title suggests, the film’s not really about Christmas.
Like other Swanberg films, this is mumblecore. For those unfamiliar with genre, think of it as the raw food diet of cinema: the plots are loose, the camera is direct, and the lines are improvised by the actors. The result is ultra realism, and the genre excels at exploring the elasticity in modern relationships. While the threat of boredom often lingers in the genre’s mundanity, the every-day-ness depicted isn’t glorified as much as exposed. Moments are allowed to breathe, to wiggle, to taper off, or explode. As such, it’s impossible to get a feeling as to where the movie might go.
But back to the story: As Kendrick’s character finds her first foothold in Chicago, she makes friends with her brother’s wife (Melanie Lynskey). This woman is a stay-at-home mom to a baby boy, as well as a novelist on the side. Let’s just say she can’t juggle both. Jenny sees this, and with the help of a friend (the awesome Lena Dunham, of Girls fame) tries to get this housewife to assert herself, to have time for family and writing, to “have it all.” The conversations between the three are incredible (and often funny) exchanges on the state of modern womanhood. Things only get better when they start brainstorming the plot to a Twilight-like novel.
Meanwhile, Jenny is also seeing her brother’s babysitter (Mark Webber), who becomes her pot dealer. She’s into his beard-and-flannel charm, but moments of considerable awkwardness bubble up as they, while high, first make out. See, this girl bears the baggage of a past relationship, and she isn’t quite sure how to deal with it while moving forward. The results of this are, for Jenny, failures of expression, of intimacy. She isn’t able to express what she wants, because — as we see all along — she doesn’t know what she wants, aside from, perhaps, a generic desire to be happy.
Speaking of happiness, the film leaves you on a high note. It doesn’t give you that sweater-on-the-inside feeling of a traditional Christmas movie, instead it suggests, rather gently, that there’s reason to be hopeful, to put up with those close to you. Kendrick’s character, while easily enjoyable throughout the film, is one that both we and the fictional characters have to occupationally put up with; and it’s a testament to Kendrick’s performance that she can be both a joy and a nuisance. Her bittersweetness works well with Swanberg’s style, making Happy Christmas one of his better experiments.
Happy Christmas is playing at the Edina Cinema.