Happy Christmas

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There’s a fine line between modesty and inconsequence, and this low-key, primarily improvised feature from mumblecore staple Joe Swanberg mostly blurs the divide. But that’s a good thing in this case, even though the setup is shrugworthy: Jenny (Anna Kendrick) has just gotten out of a relationship. She moves in with her filmmaker brother, Jeff (Swanberg), his struggling writer wife, Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) and their two-year-old child around the Christmas holiday. Awkward encounters are plentiful, tempers occasionally flare, and life lessons are learned. Families—ain’t they nuts?

Not so crazy as you may think: Happy Christmas tends to shy away from the histrionics that mark many similar domestic dramas, and that turns out to be a virtue. You may think you have the movie pegged after Jenny spends the first night in her new situation getting rip-roaring drunk, inviting Kelly’s bourgeois disdain and portending an imminent big blowup. In fact, the eruption is more internal as the two women recognize, through virtue of the other’s presence, what is sorely lacking in their own lives. Swanberg doesn’t force the characters’ epiphanies; he allows them to develop naturally and easily, until they come to the fore in a lovely sequence in which Jenny and Kelly shoot the shit over drinks. The subtext is potent—despite their differences, you feel Jenny and Kelly’s shared sense of stasis—and it’s a pleasure to watch two performers as talented as Kendrick and Lynskey explore such tricky emotional territory.

More engaging stuff follows; Girls creator Lena Dunham is especially fun as Jenny’s alternately exasperated and exasperating best friend. But in the end, inconsequence wins out. Swanberg is good at futzing with our moment-to-moment expectations, but he can’t shape all these well-acted scenes into a satisfying whole. This is a pleasingly discursive movie that would benefit from meandering its way to a point.

Follow Keith Uhlich on Twitter: @keithuhlich

Release details

Rated: R
Release date: Friday August 1 2014
Duration: 78 mins

Cast and crew

Director: Joe Swanberg
Screenwriter: Joe Swanberg
Cast: Joe Swanberg
Anna Kendrick
Melanie Lynskey
Lena Dunham
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