I have this impression that no one really knew who Anna Kendrick was until Pitch Perfect. Yes, she had been in Twilight, but she also scored an Oscar nod for Up in the Air, showing, quite early in her career, that she could exhibit an astonishing amount of pathos and maturity on screen. In Joe Swanberg’s Happy Christmas, her pathos is mixed, this time, with immaturity, and it’s kind of glorious.
After a bad breakup, 20-something Jenny (Kendrick) moves to Chicago to live with her brother Jeff (writer, director, editor, magician Joe Swanberg) and his wife Kelly (Melanie Lynskey), and her immaturity becomes almost immediately apparent.
Unlike a film like Frances Ha, there’s not much particular narrative drive in this film. Jenny is jobless and spends her first night binge drinking at a party she went to with her friend (Lena Dunham). There doesn’t seem to be any particular objective, yet Swanberg’s meandering style works and feels appropriate. His previous film Drinking Buddies didn’t have much of a narrative drive either, yet its rambly quality and ruminations on love were charming and slyly meaningful. While Happy Christmas doesn’t seek to be nearly as insightful, its purpose feels more observational. Shot on 16mm and featuring a Cassavettes-like foundation on improvisation, it feels somewhat like watching a home movie. It’s natural and awkward and often cringe-worthy, yet Swanberg and his cast still are able to hold the audience’s attention by making his characters worthy of being watched.
Jenny joins a list of ostensibly unlikable protagonists, with the like of Greta Gerwig’s France Halliday and Charlize Theron’s Mavis Crane from Young Adult. Noah Baumbach has a certain amount of fondness for his main character while it feels as if Jason Reitman holds his (and writer Diablo Cody) more in contempt. Jenny falls somewhere in the middle, her foolishness incredibly childlike. Drinking and self-destruction aside, she is basically a five-year-old. Thus it takes the incredible skill of Anna Kendrick to not only subvert her likable quality (who doesn’t love Anna Kendrick? Dumb people, that’s who) and yet still retain a magnetic quality that makes us want to keep watching her. It’s that childishness which ends up being a perfect balance. As an adult, certainly, it’s terrible, but one can’t help but think, “Aww, I’m not mad at you anymore even though you almost burned down my house whilst cooking a pizza.” This weird, perfect oscillation is best demonstrated when she makes an impromptu book pitch to Kelly, who is a writer by trade. Suggesting that Kelly write an erotic novel, she continues, “If one of your books had sex, that would be my favorite book ever.” Jenny, so oblivious, doesn’t really get that this is basically a backhanded compliment. And Kelly just sort of smiles, legitimately considering it. Kendrick imbues Jenny with such enthusiasm that even with such an inadvertently rude comment, it’s hard not to just think she’s adorable for thinking her “get rich quick” plan could work.
Melanie Lynskey, who might be best known from her outstanding role in Heavenly Creatures and the single reason why anyone would ever want to watch Two and a Half Men, plays Kelly with a particular honesty and sensitivity that’s incredibly crucial to not making the character reductively “harpy”. What separates her from such underwritten, regressive roles is that the concern and worry she has feels incredibly human as opposed to artificial and contrived. Her initial distrust of Jenny is what makes her subsequent comradery with her so resonant. It’s a gentle suggestion of support, without weighing down the film in sappiness.
This kind of paradoxically manically quiet observation appears to be what Joe Swanberg can do best. People make mistakes, and he holds them accountable, but never lets that get in the way of finding them fascinating or worthy of our attention.