It’s difficult to judge progress for a filmmaker like Joe Swanberg, who has become exceedingly prolific in his micro-budget gear for the past four years. He’s producing films at an astonishing pace — but can the same be said for the quality of the films he’s producing? With so many projects in the past few years, there should be a point when incremental progress begins to affect the stylistic and tonal confidence of an experienced director. And yet, his latest essentially eschews that argument entirely in favor of, once again, simply presenting more characters, fully-formed but aimless, as they amble about Chicago for a short while.
Happy Christmas follows a trio of films that each revealed something important about Swanberg’s potential as a filmmaker. 24 Exposures was a wandering murder mystery that proved certain genres can’t withstand the director’s aversion to planned structure of standard film production; All The Light In The Sky (TMT Review) proved the rare Swanberg film that captured both naturalistic performances and purposeful existence, ruminating on superficiality and aging in Hollywood; And Drinking Buddies (TMT Review) achieved a rare level of notoriety, melding the director’s loose and improvisational style with high-profile actors while still presenting incidents without ever actually resolving events or taking a stand on how they should be perceived. Happy Christmas falls somewhere between the latter two while, as always, playing like another minor entry in a filmography of attrition.
Anna Kendrick of Drinking Buddies plays Jenny, a proverbial lost twentysomething who moves to Chicago to live with her brother Jeff (Swanberg), his wife Kelly (Melanie Lynskey, thankfully allowed her native New Zealand accent), and their two-year-old baby while recovering from a breakup. While in town, she reconnects with her friend Carson (Lena Dunham, playing what amounts to Hannah Horvath without the crazy) and slouches into a relationship with Kevin (Mark Webber, slowly becoming the go-to male romantic object for indie film), Jeff and Kelly’s emergency babysitter and perhaps a drug dealer.
Unlike more bombastic filmmakers, who would take Jenny’s fragile post-breakup psyche and use it to careen across emotional extremes, Swanberg largely sits back and allows the inevitable to happen. Jenny is upset, and thus acts out through alcohol in ways that become a burden on her family and friends, but never so intrusive that she’s impossible to deal with. (Think Cate Blanchett in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine turned down from 11 to about a 3.) The point here is to observe a family in a state of low-key flux. Jenny is recovering but doesn’t make any gigantic breakthrough; Kelly is a novelist struggling to find time for work while being a mother, and she and Jeff are relatively new parents who acquire the parallel for another child in Jenny.
Though it takes place around the holidays, there’s not much to signify the Yuletide season except the Christmas tree in Jeff and Kelly’s home. Chicago just absorbed its worst winter in decades, and yet there’s no snow on the ground in the weeks leading up to Christmas, and barely any winter coats around. Such is the peril when there’s no money for environmental effects. Since the film adheres to the standard Swanberg micro-budget — certainly larger than his early years, but still reduced — aside from one party scene in the opening third with plenty of extras, essentially every scene boils down to shuffling between different combination of six characters, including a baby. It certainly helps that everyone has good chemistry, especially Kendrick and Webber, who don’t share much screen time but make the most of it as an awkwardly paired rebound with potential. The best scenes are perhaps the most accidental, which is par for the course with Swanberg. Jenny, Kelly, and Carson sharing a beer in the basement of Jeff and Kelly’s home yields a comically successful subplot where the three workshop the beginnings of a trashy romance novel à la 50 Shades Of Gray.
Happy Christmas doesn’t judge Jenny for her arrested development — though Kelly bounces back and forth between saying she loves her sister-in-law and complaining to her husband that her brother didn’t act so discombobulated. And while the sense that Jenny will inevitably do something moronic on a larger scale does indeed come to fruition, it’s more in service of the larger message that families contending with existential and philosophical problems instead of harsher struggles that demand immediate attention are blessed with making up quicker and easier. Broaching the question of class is perhaps unintentional, but unmistakably there. This is a film in which a married couple comprised of a working filmmaker and a published novelist struggling to write that next book complain about being too poor to afford childcare — while living in a home with a basement apartment and full tiki bar. Moments like that mean there’s a very small window within which Happy Christmas will resonate deeply without seeming like incessant navel-gazing. But for those who fall in that range, it’s pleasant and entertaining.
The nature of Swanberg’s process, with microscopic budgets and largely improvised performances, lends itself more to something like devised theater than cinema — which suggests multiple performances and a long rehearsal process would tease out meaning that doesn’t show up with extremely limited takes. But it’s still an interesting experiment to behold. Viewers have no idea whether to expect a successful gamble or a lackluster one; only that a risk to capture actor chemistry like lightning in a bottle has been taken. Happy Christmas isn’t the film on which to hang a referendum on Swanberg’s style: the lucky thing about the low stakes contained within his entire filmography is that it may never be possible to have that discussion around a single film, especially given his penchant for sub-80-minute runtimes. This is simply another well-observed, moderately successful glimpse into the lives of recognizable characters, albeit without a strong sense of purpose or urgency.