Fresh off the back of last year’s Drinking Buddies (2013), mumblecore forefather Joe Swanberg returns with Happy Christmas (2014), another modestly budgeted drama which he customarily directs, writes, produces and stars in himself. Where Drinking Buddies flirted somewhat with a conventional narrative – whilst remaining true to Swanberg’s anti-mainstream stance – his latest returns to the more sombre tones of his earlier, younger works, where character interaction took precedence over clear plot machinations. Arriving in Chicago after an inflammatory breakup, Jenny (Anna Kendrick) moves into her older brother Jeff’s (Swanberg) basement while she figures out which direction to take next.
A jobbing filmmaker, Jeff lives a contented life with his unfulfilled novelist wife Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) and their two-year old son in a place they work hard to call home. Allowing her knack for irresponsibility to quickly manifest itself within this new opportunity for a fresh start, Jenny starts meeting up with old friends – namely Carson (Lena Dunham) – and makes up for lost time, intoxicating her way towards an eventual downfall. This is immediately observed by Jeff and Kelly, who, concerned over the general safety of their son and a sibling they deeply care about, attempt to convince Jenny to shape up or run the risk of destroying her potential for a decent future. A crucial factor in Swanberg’s cinema is the way in which he teases out a string of engaging and thought-provoking sequences out of improv.
This is the essence of his work and is clearly on show within his latest, which could appear nominally facile but is in fact a deep rumination on these particular stages in these character’s lives. Consciously devoid of any of the schmaltz found in other Yuletide-themed features, Happy Christmas is a simple and sobering affair that calls into question the roles of women and the choices contemporary society expects them to make, be they vocational or familial. As the jaded stay-at-home mum Kelly, Lynskey does a great job of making believable a woman who, while happy raising a child, would also like to reawaken her passion for writing erotic literature, an evolution that Jenny and Carson help her gain inspiration for.
The same goes for Kendrick, who turns in a spectacular performance as a substance-abusing teenager trapped in a 27-year-old body. It’s a testament to Swanberg’s unwavering prowess as a DIY filmmaker – raising the funds himself, shooting in his own home with his own family, etc – that his films still eke out a modest audience still interested in his maturing observations on life. His work grows organically alongside him as a filmmaker, and now as big names are beginning to line up to appear in his work (his next, the star-studded 2015-scheduled Digging for Fire, is already in the can), it appears that wider cinemagoers are finally starting to sit up and listen to what he has to say.