By Anna Husted EBS Film Critic
What’s missing from writer and director Joe Swanberg’s “Happy Christmas” is the family dinner-table scene where we learn about the quirky aunt and gain unsolicited information about a family member that stirs the pot for future fodder. What’s also missing is Christmas itself as a character.
While “Happy Christmas” is an interesting independent film from a director to keep an eye on— see “Drinking Buddies,”—it falls flat in its story arc and character development.
Jenny (Anna Kendrick) heads home to her brother’s house for the holidays after a breakup with her boyfriend. The first night home she attends a party with her best hometown friend Carson (Lena Dunham) and gets so drunk she has to be picked up and literally carried home by her brother, played by Swanberg himself.
Jenny’s brother and his wife (Melanie Lynskey) are worried about this incident, but also understanding because she is going through a breakup. If this was the only incident things would seem somewhat normal, but Jenny continues to leave them hanging and eventually puts their young son, played by an adorable Jude Swanberg, in harm’s way.
Lynsky is always a force to watch on screen, and Kendrick and Dunham are interesting to watch as well. These strong female leads are enough to give this little indie film a watch, but not quite enough to make it a great film. While it has love and forgiveness and real-world lessons to teach, it’s missing that meaty scene where we get to dig deeper into why Jenny is acting the way she is toward herself and her loving family.
The film also fails to give us a reason for the Christmas setting or a final resolution. Not to say that films can’t keep you in a suspended place to spark discussion, but this is not that film. The lack of finality makes “Happy Christmas” feel incomplete.
Perhaps Swanberg left out a complete picture of where Jenny would end up because life doesn’t usually let us know when the curveballs or happy times are coming. My gut says this is the purpose of the incomplete ending, but it doesn’t quite work.
Jenny’s problems are all boiled down to just needing to grow up and mature already, but just as there’s a resolution missing from the film there’s introspection missing from Jenny’s life.
Christmas is also underused as a setting or character. Sure, family’s fight during the holidays, but this was just one family member being immature without developing the reason for setting this story at Christmas time.
If you’re looking for a decent independent film to watch with some holiday aspects such as lights and a tree, this fits better than a Lifetime or Hallmark “A Boyfriend for Christmas” nonsensical movie, but it’s no “Scrooge” or “Love Actually.” The spirit of Christmas didn’t get its shining moment it deserves.
“Happy Christmas” is available to stream on Hulu.
Anna Husted has a master’s in film studies from New York University. In Big Sky she can be found up on the hill or at the movies at Lone Peak Cinema. When not gazing at the silver screen or watching her new favorite TV show, she’s skiing, fishing or roughhousing with her cat, Indiana Jones.