Happy Christmas (★★★)

happychristmas_posterIt’s terrific to see filmmakers evolve in front of your eyes, especially as you see their filmmaking abilities and keen sense of moments expand from movie to movie.  In Joe Swanberg‘s Happy Christmas starring Academy Award nominee Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Lena Dunham, as well as himself, he manages to capture the feel of the early 90’s independent cinema culture that felt so mature and darkly magnetic.  In this dramatic comedy that tells the story of Jenny (Kendrick), a 20-something who moves in with her brother and sister-in-law in Chicago.

It’s interesting how Swanberg manages to capture the moments of life within in the picture.  For example, little things like watching a 2-year-old sit in a bathtub or shove a fist full of Cheerios in his mouth feels magically authentic.  Even in the way the adults interact with each other feels strangely familiar.  

Anna Kendrick continues to test her boundaries as an actress.  Whether it’s playing the punk-rock DJ in Pitch Perfect, or the manic, irresponsible adult that she exudes here, I’m excited to see her evolve the way she is.  In ten years time, she could be one of our most innovative and gifted actresses.  Her Jenny feels edgy and risky like driving on the edge of cliff.  You know there’s a safer place to be but you want to get on the ride with her.  There are bits to her performance that is reminiscent of Maggie Gyllenhaal in Sherrybaby, minus the full-out bravura turn that should have scored multiple accolades.  This is a nice mark for her resume nonetheless.

Melanie Lynskey, the reliable actress who continues to one of Hollywood’s best kept secrets for over twenty years, is completely compelling as Kelly.  The truth in which she exists in the film is hypnotizing and I wonder just how much longer we have to wait until she breaks out into every living room and theater across America, and I mean something outside of “Two and a Half Men.”

Lena Dunham serves her purpose to the film however, if there’s a chink in the armor of some of Swanberg’s creations, Carson is likely it.  This is by no means a home-run from Swanberg.  While the authenticity and honest demeanor in which he portrays his characters are appreciated, they’re not always engaging or interesting.  There might have been some unrealized ideas or actions that could have brought this film over the finish line.  There are plenty of laughs, sensational dialogue, and an intimate look into a very familiar family dynamic.  It’s moving and artistically relevant in films today.

Happy Christmas opens in limited release July 25 and is distributed by Magnolia Pictures.  It is currently available on VOD.