Director: Joe Swanberg
Cast: Joe Swanberg, Anna Kendrick, Lena Dunham Melanie Lynskey
Watch Happy Christmas online in the UK: Netflix UK / TalkTalk TV / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
The end of July hardly seems like the best time to release a Christmas movie – even if we are nearer 25th December than the beginning of the year. But Joe Swanberg’s Happy Christmas is more fitting for the summer season than you might first think.
Anna Kendrick stars as Jenny, a 20-something who moves into her brother’s basement after splitting with her boyfriend. Jeff (Swanberg), meanwhile, is settling into married life with Kelly (Lynskey) and their two-year-old son.
Awkward confrontations, domestic discussions, static camera angles, no music: the setup screams “Mumblecore” at you. Or, rather, says it very quietly. But while Swanberg’s miniature holiday gift bears many of the movement’s hallmarks, to the point where it could almost distract, underneath the wrapping is a treat that should engage even those adverse to the genre.
Indeed, Swanberg has been shooting on the cheap side for so many years now that he has seen Greta Gerwig launched into the mainstream – and can now attract bigger names to his own work. The casting of Kendrick as the immature Jenny, then, is not only a brilliant use of a skilled character actor but also the kind of move that might bring newcomers to the party. Even if it is a party that’s come five months too soon.
From Up in the Air and Twilight to last year’s Drinking Buddies (also with Swanberg), Kendrick has proven that she get under the skin of a host of roles, leading the way confidently in Pitch Perfect and – here – shrinking into herself. Gone is the go-getting a cappella singer. In her place a screw-up of a human being; the kind of role that an Oscar nominee could easily pass over.
Jenny’s recognisable neuroses give way to something deeper when she begins to interact with the other cast members. Improvisation, naturally, is the heart of these exchanges – naturally being the key word. Swanberg’s knack for creating a clique that never feels artificial pays off dividends here, decorating an occasionally threadbare tree with thick, substantial tinsel.
Swanberg is likeable as the accommodating brother and father, while the excellent Melanie Lynskey is believably frustrated as the writer turned stay-at-home mum. Together, their intimacy – and boredom – ring true. The juxtaposition between their grown-up life and Jenny’s drink-and-blackout routine, though, is nothing new. Will they all learn something from each other? Send your answers on a greeting card.
Instead, Happy Christmas finds its spirit when it diverts from the traditional offerings. Halfway through the slim 78-minute runtime, Jenny’s friend, Carson, enters the frame. Playing a sort of variant on her character from Girls, Lena Dunham is instantly engaging as the forthright female, but it is once she sits down with Kelly and Jenny that the movie sparks to life – and you forget the familiar script beats and static visuals. Spurring the annoyed author on to write a trashy 50 Shades of Grey knock-off, the trio’s discussions of sex, marriage, love and naughty words are a joy, festive or otherwise; a beautiful on-screen moment of three women talking like real people. (There’s even another scene of it after the end credits.)
July may seem like a strange time to release Joe Swanberg’s comedy-drama straight to VOD, but for those looking to escape cinema screens exploding with robots and superheroes, this concise, charming character piece really is Christmas come early.
Happy Christmas is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
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