by Hiko Mitsuzuka
First thing's first: The mere mention of Lena Dunham in the nostalgic opening credits of writer-director-star Joe Swanberg's Happy Christmas shouldn't give the impression that you're about to watch a very special holiday-themed episode of Girls. Sure, there's some twentysomething angst thrown in the mix, but it delicately informs the very loose and everyday plot of this surprisingly charming slice of mumblecore cinema.
Anna Kendrick plays Jen, a hard-partying gal who takes up temporary residence in the Chicago basement of her older brother Jeff, a film director (played by Swanberg himself), and Kelly, his stay-at-home wife (Melanie Lynskey). All we know is that Jen's been through a rough breakup, and like any directionless Millennial, she doesn't know how to hold her liquor, as seen in the opening act when she reunites with her girlfriend Carson (Dunham) and hits up a local house party.
The conflicts in Christmas are subtle, the dialogue natural and conveniently messy. Swanberg's obvious improvisational style works extremely well within the confines of such an intimate story about a group of characters learning how to rediscover each other -- and themselves. Can Kelly trust Jen to babysit her toddler (scenestealing Jude Swanberg, Joe's real-life son) so that she can enjoy a few moments to herself? Can Jen clean up her act while trying to ignite a spark with family friend/pot dealer Kevin (a very boyfriendly Mark Webber)? Can Jeff do anything to help the two women who mean the most to him?
Lynskey is a particular joy to watch, especially during a scene in which Kelly opens up to Jen and Carson over a few beers and expresses her frustration over her stagnant housewife existence (she's itching to open a laptop and start working on her second novel - but when can she schedule the time?). It's a moving and transformative moment in the film -- and one we rarely see -- in which the younger characters become the inspiring mentors for the older and wiser without coming off cocky. When Jen humorously convinces Kelly to pen an erotic novel, the collaboration becomes a revelation: these two women, who seemingly have nothing in common, need each other. There's no cattiness, no petty rivarly -- just female characters supporting each other.
While the story ends a little abruptly, stick around for the closing credits to eavesdrop on a thoroughly enjoyable brainstorm session with Kendrick, Lynskey and Dunham. And if you're one of those Scrooges who has overdosed on overly saccharine-sweet Christmas flicks loaded with yuletide tropes, see why Happy Christmas just might be the holiday movie alternative (in July, no less) we all need.
Happy Christmas is now playing in select theaters.