Happy Christmas (2014)

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“You think you could babysit for a few hours?”

Take paint thinner to the often glossy and extravagant holiday films and you’ll find yourself with Happy ChristmasNot a whole lot happens, the most intense drama starts because of a burnt pizza, and it doesn’t possess the typical overplay of joy like you might expect. Happy Christmas is about as observational as you can get. But thanks to strong performances and the best work yet that I’ve seen from the insanely prolific writer/director Joe Swanberg, the end result is a modestly entertaining and hyper realistic portrayal of life come late December. It’s uneventful, but for some reason it managed to stick with me.

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Jeff (Swanberg) and Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) are happily married parents to their infant son Jude (Jude Swanberg). Jeff’s a small-scale filmmaker and Kelly is/was a novelist, trading in her literary career for full-time mom duty. All is well and normal until Jeff’s younger sister Jenny (Anna Kendrick) shows up. She’s fresh off of a breakup and has decided to move to Chicago, so she’s crashing in their basement for the time being. Like I said before, there really isn’t a whole lot of drama to be found. Jenny doesn’t ruin their lives like we’re accustomed to seeing in stories such as this. These are good people who have their flaws and don’t try to hide them. Most of the charm comes from how incredibly likable everyone involved is, even in their worst moments (which aren’t all that bad).

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The B-story involves Kevin (Mark Webber), a part-time weed dealer who’s happy to be the babysitter replacement for Jenny while she battles yet another brutal hangover. His eyes light up when he sees her, and who wouldn’t. Anna Kendrick is the definition of cute. Certainly it can’t last forever, but the multi-talented actress is milking that quality for all it’s worth. Lynskey is one of those faces we all know but can’t put a name on and I’m sure that’s going to change. She has such great range and subtlety that once the breakout role comes along, she’ll definitely bust out. The best scenes in the film are the interactions between Swanberg and his on-screen/real son Jude. It’s candid, unrehearsed, and so damn delightful to see a good man be a good parent to a good son. And while we’re at it, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better baby in a movie before. It’s like the infant knows he’s acting. Their moments are Kodak worthy.

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Part of the ever-expanding Mumblecore genre, Happy Christmas focuses on finding naturalistic dialogue and unscripted scenes to achieve a heightened and detailed sense of realism. When done well, as it is here, the results are a bit perplexing. It’s purposefully amateurish but exudes honed skill and technique. They’re usually hit or miss, but if you want to see what the genre’s about, try the following: Frances Ha (the best of the bunch), All the Real Girls, Drinking Buddies, Humpdayor anything done by brothers Mark and Jay Duplass. Swanberg has made 18 films in 10 years, and I’ve only seen a handful because some are so hard to find. I’ve found his filmography to be up and down. Ultimately, Happy Christmas is light on yuletide and heavy on character. Where it fails to provide a theme or a point it thrives in showing us flawed, good-natured people we’ve probably met before. It’s far from escapism, and while the lack of emotional depth kept me from rating it higher, it’s still pleasant enough to recommend. You get exactly what the title implies.

“Do you want to come home and open presents?”

Rating: 3 out of 5

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