“Happy Christmas” spells a different kind of giddy holiday cheer for one wayward woman and her beloved bunch

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Happy Christmas 
Written and directed by Joe Swanberg
USA, 2014

It is an inherent belief that the holiday season and family gatherings go hand-in-hand like puffy earmuffs on an exposed frozen ear. Well, writer-director (and co-star) Joe Swanberg backs up this assertion with his dysfunctional familial gem Happy Christmas. The gift-giving in Happy Christmas is predicated upon breezy disillusionment, personal and professional malaise, and the underscoring of being unfulfilled. Once again Swanberg puts his unique stamp on the microscopic root of relationships and the fragile consequences of coping with the pressures of such interaction.

Swanberg — whose underrated 2013 romantic comedy Drinking Buddies examined the vague connections of a male/female co-worker best buddy relationship with undercurrent sexual attraction — delves into the quirky dynamics of a sibling tandem and the circle of family and friends that make up their existing bubble pitted against the background holiday cheer. Happy Christmas is gingerly perceptive and soundly giddy in its presentation of showcasing a family vacuum of intolerance and trepidation.

Chicago-based indie filmmaker Jeff (Joe Swansberg) is preparing for a permanent seasonal visit from his 27-year old baby sister, Jenny (Anna Kendrick). She’s just experienced a major break-up with her live-in boyfriend and needs a fresh start in coming home. Jeff resides at his place with his novelist wife, Kelly (Melanie Lynskey), and their cute chubby-faced toddler son, Jude (Jude Swanberg). Since they previously hosted Kelly’s brother at their house, the gesture is reciprocated when the angst-ridden Jenny is invited to stay with them in the aftermath of her failed romance.

At first Jenny seems somewhat disoriented when she arrives to greet her big brother, sister-in-law, and baby nephew. She has dinner with family but then decides to rush out to attend a house party with her buddy, Carson (Lena Dunham). Kelly, in particular, feels kind of curious as to why Jenny needs to take off  just a few hours after her arrival, but Jeff downplays her departure and requests if she can watch Jude at a later time for which Jenny agrees to the favor.

At the house party, Jenny ends up unwinding to the point beyond absurdity. She “relaxes” by smoking some pot with a group of partygoers and engages in casual sex with a stranger. Meanwhile, Carson wonders what happened to her friend and finds her completely passed out on the hostess’s bed. Unable to wake up the seemingly unconscious Jenny, the responsive Carson calls Jeff in the late hours of the night to come and retrieve his sleepy stoned sister. At this point the audience realizes, much like a concerned Kelly, that Jenny may have some deep-seeded problems embedded inside of her. Naturally, Jeff downplays his wife’s worries about Jenny and her drugged-out condition.

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As time passes on, the skepticism about Jenny and her irresponsible nature starts to take its toll. For starters, Jenny cannot keep her promise to babysit little Jude due to her party-hearty hangover from the previous night. At another time while getting high and drinking in Jeff’s basement (posing as her living quarters), Jenny ends up passing out while in the process of heating up a pizza in the oven, which leads to a smoky-filled house that could have jeopardized everybody’s safety. There is a lack of awareness and increasing selfishness that deems Jenny a reckless wonder. Clearly, the quiet despair as highlighted in the occasional substance abuse, sexual gratification, and carefree attitude has defined Jenny as a walking problem looking to be solved.

As problematic and indifferent as Jenny can be to herself while wallowing in silent misery, she is also very charismatic and strangely motivating to others. In the case of Kelly (who harbors reservations about Jenny’s presence under their roof), it’s this same young wayward woman that convinces her bored housewife sister-in-law to start writing again and be productive with her creativity. Jenny even has some clout to convince her normally responsible big brother Jeff to engage in some naughty pot-puffing sessions with her as a means to loosen up a bit.

Swanberg, whose aforementioned Drinking Buddies (as well as predecessors Hannah Takes the Stairs and Caitlin Plays Herself), has a knack for pinpointing the sometimes rough yet playful patches that haunt and hinder his female protagonists. Kendrick (an alum of Drinking Buddies) effectively embodies the scattershot soul of impish Jenny, whose hampered woman-child rut registers with charm. Lynskey’s Kelly is stiffly regal, but her uptight exterior slowly mellows as her plucky sister-in-law feeds her emptiness beyond her routine domestic duties. Dunham’s Carson is fine as the sounding board sidekick to Jenny, but she could have used some more screentime to fully flesh out her sassy characterization.

Alas, Happy Christmas certainly will not leave any unwanted coal in your holiday stocking.

–Frank Ochieng






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