I’m pretty fond of mumblecore movies, and I think Joe Swanberg is the best to ever make them. He gets the balance of “nothing happens” and “interpersonal drama” just right, captures naturalistic/improvised dialogue that feels authentic and character-illuminating, and gives his films appealing visual identities. His movies usually have plots and structures, but also tend to have ambiguous and shaded endings. And they almost always capture some subculture or phenomenon with incisive eyes.
All of that to say: By nature of being a Swanberg mumblecore flick, Happy Christmas is pretty damn enjoyable. The “subculture” depicted here is new parenthood, and all the social and personal challenges that entails. I’ve frankly never seen a movie that better captures how I felt in the first year or two after having a baby: My daughter was my entire world, but I also still “felt” like a young adult who didn’t want to let go of my social life and personal dreams. I had a really hard time connecting with peers who didn’t yet have kids and could do stuff like play D&D all night, get drunk at bars just for the hell of it, attend concerts every other week, do some fun thing on a whim with no planning, etc.
For me, the show-stealer here is Melanie Lynskey as Kelly, the new mom who has put her writing career on pause. Lynskey is absolutely brilliant, giving her character a fully-realized spectrum of emotions. She captures the deep love for her new family life twinged with jealousy and lost potential of a stay-at-home mom who has had to put her career and dreams and hold. Whenever she’s on screen, the movie is working.
Less appealing to me is Anna Kendrick’s wayward character, Jenny. The movie didn’t do enough to frame her state of mind or motivation. Frankly, Kendrick is a bit flat in the role, not giving Jenny much depth or personality, and ends up pretty unlikeable. Her relationship with her family is at least compelling and nuanced , although the half-baked romance with the pot-dealer has weirdly strident chemistry.
Despite the middling lead performance, Happy Christmas is still mostly a delight, with Jenny and Kelly’s friendship falling into a quasi-rom-com structure that’s pretty satisfying. Swanberg is excellent as the co-star straight-man to the women’s emotional tug-of-war, and his real-life toddler appearing as the doofy-looking-but-adorable Jude.
It’s not a masterpiece, and far from Swanberg’s best, but it scratched the itch for low-key, mumblecore drama with the faintest of holiday themes.