Sundance 2014: Kendrick, Lynskey, Dunham Shine in Swanberg’s ‘Happy Christmas’

PARK CITY, UTAH: As the opening credits roll in Joe Swanberg’s Happy Christmas, the festivalgoer’s eyes have to do a quick adjustment. Here, in a sea of slick, crisp, clean high-def video, Swanberg has gone retro; for the first time, the prolific video filmmaker is shooting on Super 16mm film, with cinematographer Ben Richardson aggressively pushing the grain. It lends the picture a roughness, a homemade quality, recalling the works of John Cassavettes, who encouraged the improvisation of actors and frequently cast his friends and family (as Swanberg does here). Swanberg’s let-the-camera-run aesthetic can go either way — towards self-indulgence, or overheard, naturalistic candor. Thanks in no small part to the considerable gifts of stars Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, and Lena Dunham, Happy Christmas goes the right way.

In spite of its title, this is not a “Christmas movie” in the traditional sense, though it is set in the holiday season. The locale is Chicago, in the home of Jeff (Swanberg), Kelly (Lynskey), and their two-year-old son (played, with alarming cuteness, by Swanberg’s own offspring Jude). Jeff’s sister Jenny (Kendrick), in from out of town and fresh from a bad break-up, takes up residence in their basement. She seems to have her shit together, but quickly proves otherwise; on her first night, her friend Carson (Dunham) takes her to a house party, where she gets so hammered that Jeff has to come take her home.

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That sequence is full of right-on touches — the way Carson chastises her for refusing to come out of her blackout (“You just opened your eyes like a person who knew what you were doing”), the way she keeps mumbling “I’m fine” when people tell her she really has to move now. Kendrick tends to get cast as slightly neurotic type-As, but Jenny is a horse of a different color; she’s a bit of a mess, prone to bad decisions and endless excuses. There’s a great scene where she talks her way out of a romantic entanglement (with Mark Webber, very good) with a head-spinning mixture of apologies, compliments, and side-steps, and in a way, that’s what she’s doing throughout the film.

Lynskey is up to something even trickier. The marvelous character actress (using, as she rarely does onscreen, her native New Zealand accent) plays Kelly in a state of muted anxiety; as the mother of a toddler, she’s sort of perpetually unshowered and pajama-clad, confessing to Jenny and Carson that before taking on the job, “I didn’t understand completely that it’s like every moment of every day.” That line comes during a rather remarkable three-handed dialogue scene, in which the trio engages in something quite rare for (even independent) American film: a real conversation about feminism and gender roles.

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“My wife and I are both filmmakers,” Swanberg told me, “and when we had Jude, we didn’t have any money. So it made sense for me to work and for her to stay with Jude — we couldn’t afford childcare for both of us to keep making stuff. And it was tough for her to sort of think about her identity being that of a stay-at-home mom… Jude was two when we made the movie, and it was a big conversation in those two years, and I agree, I don’t see it in movies. It was something that I wanted to talk about, and it needs to be talked about, so it was a big impetus for making this in the first place.”

In a scene like that, the informed views of his outspoken actors can only help, and since Swanberg works only from a scene-by-scene outline, relying on his actors to create their own dialogue, “they’re like co-writers in a very real way.” It also puts tremendous pressure on those actors, but they’re clearly up for it. As far as the outline goes, Kendrick explained, “It’s just the beginnings of those scenes. The thing doesn’t really matter in the end; I think everyone’s objective, even though we know the ground we need to cover, is to make something happen.”

That it does. If the picture meanders in its opening scenes, it grows on you — and so do its characters. Like his excellent 2013 film Drinking Buddies, Happy Christmas is a hanging-out movie. But the stakes are higher this time around: family, identity, parenthood. Swanberg may not write dialogue, but he and this terrific cast still have plenty to say.

Happy Christmas is playing this week at the Sundance Film Festival.