Film Review: Happy Christmas

by Chad Liffmann on August 1, 2014

Soft and low key, and a healthy dose of reality

Melanie Lynskey and Joe Swanberg snuggle up tight in 'Happy Christmas'

Melanie Lynskey and Joe Swanberg snuggle up tight in ‘Happy Christmas’

Some people enjoy movies because they provide an escape from the hardships of real life.  To them, the more out-of-this-world, the better.  Other people enjoy realistic movies the most – the movies that capture the intricacies of real human behavior, real emotions, and stories grounded in reality.  Happy Christmas will definitely please the latter group of movie watchers, but has a rather good shot at pleasing the former group, too.  Director Joe Swanberg (Drinking Buddies) is a rising talent getting known for his acute handling of complex onscreen relationships.  Happy Christmas is Swanberg’s most mature film to date, capturing a segment in the life of a few in a way that doesn’t rely on overly dramatic instances to drive the plot.  In doing so, the film is actually a pleasant invitation into another family’s life, one in which the characters ring true.

Joe Swanberg acts in the film, playing a filmmaker husband, Jeff, to the stay-at-home mom, Kelly.  Kelly is a novelist, though her inspiration to write has all but disappeared since having a child with Jeff, the adorably precocious Jude, played by Joe Swanberg’s real son, Jude.  After a breakup, Jeff’s sister, Jenny, played by Anna Kendrick, comes to live with the couple in Chicago.  Jenny, 27, is still nurturing behavior better suited for a younger, more immature age.  Despite the worries and problems she presents by entering a wholesome family home, Jenny does serve as a good sounding board to Jeff and Kelly,  and supplies each with some reasoning to change their own lives a bit.

The acting is superb and nuanced, even as little Jude steals every scene he’s in.  The tone in Happy Christmas remains light, which is a welcome feeling when most films try to nail the drama with a heavy hand.  Much of the film seems unscripted since the awkward situations and hilarious conversations feel really imperfect and genuine.  Viewers will undoubtedly connect closely with the characters and situations.  I know I did.  But like I mentioned before, Happy Christmas still manages to please more than upset or present harsh reminders of reality.  It’s about growing pains, values, and finding the inspiration to change things for the better, even when the inspiration comes from the most unexpected places.

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Happy Christmas opens in select theaters today, August 1st.

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