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Quint checks out Joe Swanberg's latest HAPPY CHRISTMAS starring Melanie Lynskey and Anna Kendrick! Sundance 2014!


Ahoy, squirts! Quint here finishing up my Anna Kendrick Trilogy of Sundance 2014 reviews. I've covered her in two different genre projects at the fest this year (Life After Beth and The Voices) and, as Monty Python would say, now for something completely different.

I have an axiom that I've been repeating at film festivals since the rise of the improvised indie drama (aka “mumblecore”): “I like scripts.” When people say “anybody can make a movie” it's usually these kinds of films they're thinking of because the only thing you need is a camera and people willing to make shit up in front of it. You don't need a DP, a lighting kit, any special lenses. These films are about the truth of a moment and the reality of the people in it.

I like scripts. So, Joe Swanberg's stuff isn't really for me, but I saw and liked Drinking Buddies in which he took a giant step towards a middle ground between the amateurism of mumblecore and the polished (and sometimes hollow) world of more traditional filmmaking. Happy Christmas is his new flick and while it takes a step back into more regular less-polished Swanberg territory I found myself opening up to it in a way I haven't in many of his earlier movies.

I think the reason for that because Swanberg ends up focusing on Melanie Lynskey and Anna Kendrick's characters. Lynskey doesn't get a chance to jump front and center much, which is a damn shame. She's so likable and radiates sweetness, even when she's pissed off. Anna Kendrick we all know and adore, so it's no mystery why more of her in any movie makes said movie better.

In this one she plays Swanberg's irresponsible little sister who has to move in with her family man older brother, much to the irritation of his wife (Lynskey). Swanberg's real life kid, Jude Swanberg, plays their baby and also adds a lot to the movie. Jude could be the most natural movie star baby of this generation. Every single time he was onscreen the audience ooo'd and awwww'd and laughed at his precociousness.

Pretty much the set up is how this family reacts to the little whirlwind of chaos that is Anna Kendrick. This is a boring suburban family and now this 20-something pot-smoking, free-spirited party monster moves in and disrupts things. Now she's not an evil person, just a bit self-absorbed and thoughtless. This is a Swanberg picture, afterall. The whole point is paint realistic, recognizable characters and everybody has had a friend or relation like Kendrick in this movie. She's smart, but does really stupid things and everyone around her scratches their heads at the contradiction.



Lynskey could have (and probably would have in any other kind of movie) just been the bitchy wife upset at the intrusion by this interloper, even if she is family, but instead they end up exploring her insecurities and dreams. As crazy as Kendrick's character makes their lives she also awakens the aspiring novelist in Lynskey's character and some of the best material is Lynskey warming up to Kendrick and listening to her awful, horrible, but hilariously smutty ideas for erotic fiction.

Rounding out the cast are Mark Webber as a love interest for Kendrick and Lena Dunham as an old friend of Kendrick's. Webber is always good and I like Dunham a lot, but of all the people in the movie she's the one whose character doesn't quite take that step beyond caricature. Webber is a bit of a pothead, sells weed, but is also stable and sweet, the exact kind of person Kendrick's character needs. Dunham is just the annoying friend and while she does come up with really funny lines the annoying friend is all she is in the screen time she is given.

I'm a big fan of Ben Richardson, the cinematographer (Beasts of the Southern Wild), but the look of the movie is unremarkable. It's about what you'd expect from an almost completely improvised Joe Swanberg picture.

If a dude with as much of an aversion to mumblecore as I have can dig this one, I think it's reasonable to expect that others that feel the same way as I do will enjoy it as well, however my mega crushes on Anna Kendrick and Melanie Lynskey might have softened the blow a tad.

That's about all I have to say about the flick. You kind of know what you're getting into if you know Swanberg's work, but this one is short, sweet and has a thankfully female focus that kept me hooked in more than most of his stuff.

-Eric Vespe
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