‘Happy Christmas’ is a welcome dose of reality within Summer’s usual explosions

by Abby Olcese on August 22, 2014

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Solid Rock Fist Up]

If Joe Swanberg’s new film Happy Christmas feels out-of-place during the summer movie season, it’s not just because of the yuletide setting. Summer is typically a time for thrilling blockbusters and eye candy of the explosive variety (or even the tough-talking Raccoon variety…go figure). Happy Christmas, a product of the low-budget, realism-oriented mumblecore movement, is anything but. It’s a small, thoughtful comedy that’s more concerned with believable characters and relationships than it is with highly-scripted dialogue or memorable set pieces.

The film focuses on three central characters. Jeff (Swanberg) and Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) are a happily married couple living in Chicago with their sweet two-year-old (Swanberg’s own scene-stealing son). Their lives are shaken up by the arrival of Jeff’s sister Jenny (Anna Kendrick), whose plan to get over an epic breakup involves a possible move to the Windy City. Jenny’s a well-meaning but immature mess, and her antics alternately provide frustration, concern and inspiration for Jeff and Kelly.

Because of its natural, low-key nature, mumblecore (of which Swanberg is one of the founders) can be a pretty polarizing area of cinema. Whether or not you enjoy it, and by extension, whether or not you enjoy Happy Christmas, depends entirely on what it is you want in a movie. For audiences more interested in escapism than realism (and, let’s face it, that accounts for most mainstream moviegoers), mumblecore isn’t appealing. It’s not hard to understand why; most of its films aren’t any funnier, scarier or more dramatic than anything you’d encounter in your everyday life.

But for those people who enjoy seeing people and relationships portrayed in all their awkward, flawed and complex glory, Happy Christmas may come as a welcome change of pace. Working with a mostly improvised script, Swanberg captures a set of authentic, highly relatable performances from his skilled cast. Jenny may have her awful moments, but chances are you know someone just like her. As Jeff and Kelly, Swanberg and Lynskey provide accurate, loving portrayals of young parents—with all the exhaustion, joy and life goal-adjustment that go along with the territory.

The characters’ relationships aren’t all black and white, either, which makes their interactions that much more realistic. For example, while Kelly worries about Jenny’s irresponsible behavior, the two are also involved in a great side-plot in which Jenny encourages Kelly to reinvigorate her writing career by creating a 50 Shades of Grey-style erotic bestseller. Although the characters may not always get along, Swanberg always gives you the sense that they still love each other.

Happy Christmas isn’t a movie for everyone, but even for filmgoers who prefer more excitement, it’s worth trying out. For people looking to give mumblecore movies a shot, it’s a pretty fun introduction to the movement, and at 80 minutes, it won’t take up much of your time. For long-time fans, it’s a solid entry from one of the movement’s staunchest mainstays. And whether or not realism is your “thing,” Happy Christmas still serves as a great palate-cleanser in the midst of summer’s usual set of explosions, superheroes…and space raccoons.

Abby is a contributor to Scene-Stealers and also writes at her own blog, No More Popcorn. Follow her at:

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