Chaos arrives in a petite package in Happy Christmas, the latest improvisational dramedy from indie auteur Joe Swanberg that is currently in theaters and VOD. The filmmaker himself stars in one of his finest movies to date as a man not unlike himself, a married father and movie director, who welcomes his little sister into his home after her latest breakup, her Yuletide visit creating a stir far beyond merely breaking up the household routine. Populated by a nimble cast, this fresh, funny look at family life is a charmer.
Jenny (Anna Kendrick) is a mess when she arrives on Jeff (Swanberg) and Kelly’s (Melanie Lynskey) Chicago doorstep, as she embarrasses best friend Carson (Lena Dunham) with her behavior at a party her first night in town, blows off a promise to babysit Jeff and Kelly’s toddler son Jude (Jude Swanberg, Joe’s own ultra-adorable child), and tries to rebound into a new relationship with amiable pot dealer/babysitter Kevin (Mark Webber). But it’s Jenny’s presence that also spurs Kelly, a novelist turned stay-at-home mom, to realize that it’s time to reclaim that part of her life again.
Happy Christmas makes astute observations about how families works, both on a sibling level and in couples. Jeff clearly adores his baby sister and has probably been acting as her protector since they were children. But where he once might have protected her from bullies on the playground, he now offers a soft landing for one of life’s emotional blows. That may not be the best thing for her, since she takes it as tacit permission to act out. At the same time, as Jeff and Kelly find themselves in the odd position of feeling almost like Jenny’s parents instead of a brother and sister-in-law, it shakes them out of a complacency that has crept up without their awareness.
Swanberg shot Happy Christmas in his own home, including in his fabulous tiki bar basement, apparently a remnant from the original homeowner. That just adds another layer of realism to a film that plays a lot like life, only with better dialogue.—Pam Grady
San Francisco Bay Area residents: Joe Swanberg is participating in a Skype Q&A after the 7pm screening at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater on Friday, August 1. For more info, visit http://www.roxie.com.