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Review: Happy Christmas

June 27, 2014

By John Corrado

*** (out of 4)

Happy Christmas Poster

With slightly grainy handheld cinematography, mostly captured at director Joe Swanberg’s own Chicago home, Happy Christmas couldn’t be farther from the summer blockbusters that are currently dominating the box office.

But that’s precisely the charm of this low key and very entertaining little film.  After premiering at Sundance back in January, Happy Christmas was released on iTunes as well as other VOD platforms yesterday, before a limited theatrical run coming at the end of July.

Jenny (Anna Kendrick) has just broken up with her boyfriend, when she goes to stay with her brother Jeff (Joe Swanberg) over the holidays, who lives in Chicago with his wife Kelly (Melanie Lynsky) and their young son (Jude Swanberg).

Jenny is barely responsible when it comes to living with a small child, staying out late and getting drunk with her friend Carson (Lena Dunham) and hitting on their babysitter Kevin (Mark Webber), who moonlights as a pot dealer.  But she might just prove beneficial to the young family in the long run, helping reignite her apprehensive sister-in-law’s passion as a writer.

Captured through an appropriately gritty lens, the characters and situations always feel natural and real, with the characters seeming like people who we would actually stick with because of their close proximity in our lives.  Like Joe Swanberg’s equally solid Drinking Buddies from last year, which also featured Anna Kendrick, Happy Christmas is the sort of super low budget film that works so well because of the sharply naturalistic dialogue and strong performances.

Joe Swanberg makes for a likeable everyman in front of the camera, and his real life son proves to be an adorable little scene stealer.  The interactions between them are naturally very charming, and Melanie Lynsky imbues genuine depth into what could have been a stereotypical role, making us relate to both her character’s exhaustion as a young mother and burgeoning dreams of pursuing a career in writing.

But this is really a showcase for Anna Kendrick who is simply excellent, displaying both her impressive dramatic and comedic range as this young woman who always managing to be charming and likeable, despite her multiple screw ups.  Lena Dunham is also hilarious, essentially playing a different variation on the character that she has honed so perfectly on Girls, and stay tuned right to the end of the credits for some very funny banter between the three women.

This is the sort of film that should benefit greatly from being available on iTunes, and deserves to find an audience.  With a great soundtrack of indie rock songs, Happy Christmas is a very entertaining and appealingly naturalistic little film, effortlessly proving that you don’t always need a big budget when you have likeable characters and an excellent cast.

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