Joe Swanberg is one of the most interesting filmmakers working in America today, not necessarily because he breaks form or is reinventing the cinematic wheel but rather because he embodies an enviable sense of creative freedom, his films ranging from Werewolf thrillers (Silver Bullets) to mumblecore successes (Hannah Takes the Stairs et al) to his latest phase of filmmaking, which sees him alternating ‘genre’ features with these mostly improvised character dramedies that seem to work to great effect. His 2012 feature, Drinking Buddies, was one of my favourite films of that year, a refreshing and honest appraisal of relationships and attraction. For that film kind of film to work, though, it’s necessary to have actors who are genuinely witty and funny and who seem to have a good rapport with one another. With Happy Christmas, then, Swanberg hasn’t quite hit the goldmine that was the Drinking Buddies cast but Happy Christmas in nonetheless a consistently funny and enjoyable ‘hang-out’ of a movie.
The plot is fairly sleight, a filmmaker, Jeff (Swanberg himself), and his novelist wife Kelly (Melanie Lynsky) are caring for their young son, when the filmmaker’s intermittently reckless sister Jenny (Anna Kendrick) comes to stay following a bad breakup; occasional havoc ensues. The film follows their interactions, as well as those with Jenny’s close friend Carson, played by a giddy Lena Dunham and potential romantic interest Kevin (Mark Webber). The film is very much a ‘small film’, the cast never really extends beyond those five characters, which lends it a pleasant intimacy that not many other films even attempt to achieve.
It should be noted that, with a film like this, there is always the potential for it to slip into complete indulgence – we watch Lynsky, Dunham and Kendrick sit in a room and pitch erotic fiction – yet the scenes that are so clearly improvised riffs are really engaging and amusing. It’s as if in some of the scenes the actors are trying to one-up each other, Dunham and Kendrick especially, with the results a joy to watch. The acting is good all-around, it was a clever choice re-teaming Scott Pilgrim cast members Kendrick and Webber, as it lifts their scenes beyond structural asides. The best of the film, though, is Swanberg’s young son Jude, who plays himself in the film (naturally). Whether the kid is an on-camera natural or Swanberg and his team edited hours down to seconds, Jude’s reactions and interactions to castmembers who themselves are improvising, was both naturally and conceptually funny. The kid has gotten the biggest laughs out of a Sydney Film Festival audience thus far.
Theres another layer to the film, though, that is perhaps apparent throughout with occasional flickers and dust marks but made explicitly clear in the credits, which is that it was shot on 16mm film. Swanberg told The Hollywood Reporter earlier this year that as he became more confident in his filmmaking abilities, he felt able to transition to film. I don’t think the usage of film in Happy Christmas hurt it at all, in fact the notion of a home video film camera is instantly nostalgic, so by using that grain and those visual cues, there is an in-built level of warmth and familiarity.
It would be amiss of me not to mention the great soundtrack, hand picked by Chris Swanson, who also oversaw the music on Drinking Buddies. The usage of these modern songs that sound vaguely like they have been plucked from another era also solidify the way in which the film plays with context.
All of this isn’t to say the film is brilliant or profound – it lacks perhaps the deep emotional sincerity of Drinking Buddies – but for what it sets out to achieve, an intimate look at family and twenty-somethings transitioning into ‘adulthood’, it does a pretty good job.
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