Joshua Reviews Joe Swanberg’s Happy Christmas [Theatrical Review]


When it comes to filmmakers, few are quite as prolific as one Joe Swanberg. And even fewer are quite as polarizing. Be it his avid supporters and the supporters of the lo-fi, intimate independent filmmaking that he has become a godfather of, or the detractors who use the phrase “mumblecore” as a pejorative, Swanberg has become one of the most important, influential and talked about auteurs that American cinema has seen this generation.

So when a new film from the constantly working writer/director/actor/enfant terrible arrives it is about as big a deal as the world of American independent film can drum up. And thankfully it may also be the director’s best work yet.

Entitled Happy Christmas, the film is a decidedly more nuanced and mature effort from the filmmaker, a return to form for an ever experimenting auteur. Written and directed by Swanberg, the film tells the story of a husband and wife duo, Jeff and Kelly, who have their lives flipped upside down when Jeff’s sister arrives to live with them following a break up. A delightfully charming comedy, this is one of Swanberg’s quietest films, and yet it is also arguably his most  mature and charming bits of filmmaking to date.

Over the last handful of projects, Swanberg has gone down a path of growth as both a writer and a filmmaker, with each new film appearing to be his greatest and most adult work. Save for the pulpy DePalma-inspired thriller 24 Exposures, films like Drinking Buddies and its fellow 2013 release, the underseen gem All The Light In The Sky, Swanberg has proven himself to be an interesting voice with more insight on the human condition than anyone truly seems interested in giving him credit for. A lighter effort than even a film like Buddies, this film’s greatest aspect comes in Swanberg’s growth as an auteur behind the camera.

Teaming up once again with photographer Ben Richardson, the film looks unlike anything Swanberg has ever made. Taking place primarily in the central couple’s home, Swanberg’s camera is seemingly ever present and moves fluidly through this family’s world as if it is just another relative living there. Richardson’s photography is lively and absolutely breathtaking, bringing to Swanberg’s raw and realistic universe the dream-like grain and warm lighting that made his work on a picture like Beasts Of The Southern Wild so bewildering. It’s like watching a series of home videos shot by a faceless tennant, and its truly a look to behold when taken in unison with Swanberg’s typically loose storytelling and collection of performances.

The film itself is a tad slighter than many of Swanberg’s previous films. Ostensibly just a familial comedy, it lacks that dense meditating of a film like Sky or romantic intrigue like Buddies, but this is a rather punchy and insightful look at marriage and family. Driven almost entirely by these performances, the film is lucky as all are uniformly great. Swanberg stars here as Jeff, with Melanie Lynskey opposite him as his wife Kelly. The pair on their own are truly fantastic, but the chemistry together pops right off the screen. There are quiet beats here that tell more than any exposition could, ranging from Jeff sitting on his phone while giving his son a bath or a look that Kelly shoots his way while making a request of him. There is a moment near the end of the film, the couple in front of a Christmas tree, that is as heartfelt and real as anything the director has ever written and it has a level of maturity to it that this type of independent film rarely carries.  Then, enter Jeff’s sister Jenny, played by Anna Kendrick. A spitfire of a performance, she feels truly at ease in Swanberg’s world, turning in one of her more engaging and intriguing performances to date. Rounded out by the pair of Mark Webber and Lena Dunham, the cast here is across the board great, making for a truly rousing and original comedy.

Overall, while the film may lack the thematic intrigue of Swanberg’s more dense works, what it lacks in sociological intrigue it more than makes up for in the director’s growth as a narrative storyteller. His most forward thinking film aesthetically to date, this film is driven by so much heart that it is without a doubt his most charming and engaging piece yet. An absolute gem that feels as warm and welcome as the first night back home on a Christmas vacation, Swanberg’s latest is one that should not be missed.

Joshua Brunsting

Josh is a critic, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, a wrestling nerd, a hip-hop head, a father, a cinephile and a man looking to make his stamp on the world, one word at a time.