Joe Swanberg’s films are concerned with the failure of communication. The director’s acutely aware of our bodies as potential prisons of pent-up emotion, and he has a particular eye for how the insecure can feel paradoxically invisible and exposed at once. In this light, a holiday family film, which is often driven by private and public resentments, seems inevitable for Swanberg, though he weirdly, bracingly plays the Christmas trappings down in Happy Christmas, limiting their influence to visual shorthand such as colored decorations and packages sprinkled here and there within the frame. One gets the impression that Swanberg became attached to the title, and that the specifics of a “Christmas movie” were of limited interest to him. This disconnection subtly works, as the characters are shown to be untethered from rituals that many take as a matter of course. And that lapse, that feeling of living just slightly out of joint with the rest of society, is the real subject of the movie.
Jenny (Anna Kendrick) is that contemporary American specialty: the self-consciously directionless late-20s flounder. After a breakup, she decides that she might want to live in Chicago, and so she crashes in the city with her brother, Jeff (Swanberg), and his wife, Kelly (Melanie Lynskey), and their two-year-old son, Jade (Jade Swanberg). We’re initially primed to assume that Jeff’s the hero, and that this might be a story of his navigating murky domestic waters that are disrupted by a familial wild card. But Happy Christmas has something more interesting and poignant in mind: Jeff largely recedes from the story, allowing us to see how Jenny, Kelly, and Jenny’s friend, Carson (Lena Dunham), play off one another. Initially, they wrestle with the typical insecurities of their respective stations in life: Jenny feels like a failure in the presence of the stable and poised Kelly, who herself feels like she’s been reduced to the role of asexual “mom,” particularly while talking to what she sees as two blissfully unhampered younger women.
This dynamic leads to a specific kind of moment that arises in all of Swanberg’s films. He trains his camera on his most important characters (his unjustly derided and misleadingly direct “point-and-shoot” mise-en-scène serving to accentuate their exposure) and keeps them in front of us, wallowing in their confusion, until they reach out and allow themselves to directly speak their mind, inadvertently voicing the film’s subtext in the process. Often moving, this gambit illuminates the purity of expression that’s painfully near the characters’ reach. A variation of this scene occurs several times in Happy Christmas. For the first instance, Jenny, Kelly, and Carson are downstairs in Kelly’s house, at the tiki bar that was left over from the previous owner, when Carson casually tells Kelly that she’s beautiful. Dunham’s delivery is just right, poised between self-conscious daring and legitimate awe, and the expression on Lynskey’s face is intensely revealing, as she allows you to see Kelly attempting to cover her real response of stunned flattery with something more politely canned, and failing. It’s an exhilarating moment that also serves a pragmatic narrative purpose: Jenny and Kelly recognize a mutual longing that springs from wonderment of the life not lived.
Swanberg’s films have grown into a reliable relief from the competitive, dehumanizing freneticism of much of American culture, marked as they are by an affirming and understated sense of decency. In a typical underachiever comedy, the middle class might be vilified so as to flatter a disenfranchised notion of unearned rebellion, but in Happy Christmas you see that Jeff and Kelly are prone to the same doubts as Jenny. Similarly, Jeff isn’t exaggerated as a self-absorbed cave man in order to land reductive points in favor of the women. He supports Kelly, and he clearly loves Jenny, which is never more obvious than when the two smoke a little dope downstairs in the basement where Jenny’s crashing. High for maybe the first time, Jeff hears a song that Jenny’s playing on her computer, Joel Alme’s “If You Got Somebody Waiting,” proclaiming it to be the best he’s ever heard. He’s fucked up, but, in that moment, he’s probably truthful, and we hear it again near the end of the film as it assumes the status of an anthem of indirectly expressed affection. The filmmaker deftly lands his unusually optimistic ending, in which Jenny and Kelly find themselves in the last variation of that characteristic Swanberg moment: Rather than collapsing into a morass of non-communication, the characters take a step forward, grasping at what they want, understanding, finally, that they’re permitted to happiness.