Christmas films seem to fall into two camps: those merely set at Christmas (Die Hard, Love Actually) and those where Christmas is central to the plot (Gremlins, The Nightmare Before Christmas). Are films in the former really Christmas films? Well, that’s an argument for the ages…
Happy Christmas is one of the former. But it was on Netflix’s Festive Films category, which brought me to watching and reviewing it…
Anna Kendrick plays Jenny, a 20-something who just broke up with her boyfriend (though it’s not clear who did the breaking up) and has moved in with her brother, his wife and their baby.
It became pretty apparent early in the viewing that this is one of those character driven ‘slice of life’ movies with no real agenda or plot to speak of. Given it had 1 and a half stars on Netflix, I wasn’t expecting much from it but actually, this is solid.
Anyway, Jenny has no job to speak of, direction or any apparent goals in life, and spends most of this movie being a bit of a bit of a fuck-up, largely getting wasted in a variety of ways.
Within 20 minutes of the film starting, she has eaten with the family and then skipped out on them to go to a party. She gets so wasted at said party that her friend has to call Jenny’s brother to take her home and then Jenny doesn’t get out of bed the next morning when she should be babysitting her nephew.
She’s a fuck up but it’s never really explained why. In other films, there would be some big emotional scene where she breaks down and reveals that her ex-boyfriend dumped her (or some other super important explanation why she is a fuck up) and then that puts her on to the road to recovery.
But not here: this film tries to play things realistically. Jenny isn’t a total fuck up, not exactly going from one mess to another, because in real life, no one is a constant screw up without redeeming qualities. And sometimes people are just fuck ups because they are. There isn’t always an underlying reason.
Jenny actually has some positive influence on her sister-in-law, Kelly. Kelly is a stay at home mother whose life revolves around their young son. She used to write (and it is clear that Jenny has read some of her stuff) and Jenny’s enthusiasm for life pushes Kelly into writing some erotica (and their discussions around what and how to write it are a lot of fun).
In fact, the chemistry between all the cast is what makes this film really rather good.
It appears to be filmed largely on a hand-held camera and follows the cast around so the viewer is a bystander to the action.
There’s not much story to the film but that’s okay, it isn’t about the plot. It’s about the characters and everyone is brilliantly normal.
There’s no overwrought cathartic scene, no huge life threatening fuck up (the worst thing Jenny does is burn a pizza early in the morning) or anything like that: this is just how drama plays out in real life.
And that’s the point of this film, I guess. It is real life, with realistic characters, and we as the viewers are right there, following Jenny around.
Very early in the movie, I was very impressed with how natural the dialogue was. I believed that Jeff and Jenny were siblings and that’s impressive. As it happens, as with a lot of Joe Swanberg movies apparently, the dialogue is 100% is improvised and that’s why this film works.
We’ve all known people like Jenny, Jeff and Kelly. Take Jenny: we all know people who are perfectly charming but have flaws that make dealing with them problematic. And like I was saying earlier, no one is a constant screw up without redeemable qualities and Jenny is very likeable, fun to be around and enthusiastic, when she’s not drinking and smoking to excess.
But living with her? Dating her?
There’s a pivotal scene where the fellow she is kinda dating has ‘travel plans the next day’ and ‘can’t’ stay over with Jenny. And the problem with Jenny here is that we don’t know whether this guy wants out of their burgeoning relationship or legitimately is being responsible and simply doesn’t want to let his family down. Because Jenny wants this guy now and would sack off whatever plans she had the next day. When he doesn’t do that, she takes it as a rejection. And that’s her deal. That’s her. That’s what we take away from this film.
And that’s why this film ultimately works. The four cast members (five if you count the cute baby) do a fantastic job of drawing us in and making this real.
To be frank, I was expecting this to be an indie acting-vehicle for Anna Kendrick (Pitch Perfect, Twilight) in much the same way Rachel Getting Married was for Anne Hathaway. But where the latter comes across as Hathaway chasing an, any, award, this feels less cynical and more like Kendrick was into it.
I enjoyed this film quite a bit. Surprisingly so, given I thought it was a random library-filler on Netflix but it’s more than that.
As an aside, Joe Swanberg wrote, directed and stars as Jeff (an indie movie maker). That’s pretty impressive. I will definitely looking for more of his work.
TL;DR “Random Christmas indie film is far better than expected.”