That Happy Christmas released on July 25th is ironic and also makes perfect sense. Christmas in July just seems like the fake holiday that writer-director Joe Swanberg would celebrate and improvise like so much of his movies’ dialogue. But this is not exactly a holiday movie so much as a movie during a holiday. It’s as secular as unwrapping presents beneath the air-conditioner.
It follows that nothing is too profound in Swanberg’s latest film about a residential Chicago couple whose lives get infiltrated by one of their immature family members. But the joys of experiencing a small film like this don’t rely on deep thoughts and revolutionary storytelling. In fact they’re quite the opposite. Happy Christmas, like most Swanberg films, thrives in providing quaint banalities that add up to small humorous and impactful moments; in other words, life.
The couple in question is Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) and Jeff (Swanberg) and the family member is Jeff’s younger sister Jenny (Anna Kendrick), who shows up one night in December. She is a rather regular unemployed 20-something that might have been a bland Girls archetype had Kendrick not played her. She’s there to stay in their basement for a while and helps with her brother’s baby Jude (Swanberg’s own son who’s humorously adept), but ends up failing some simple responsibilities.
That includes getting passed out drunk at a party the first night, turning her longtime friend Carson (Lena Dunham) into an apologetic chaperone. Her hangover renders her useless to babysit that morning so Kelly calls a reliable, occasional pot-smoker friend Kevin (Mark Webber) to watch Jude instead. Jenny, embarrassed, but also intrigued by his presence, eventually hooks up with him, a small fling that involves some ditsy improvisational banter and, naturally, some marijuana smoking.
Swanberg, as always, lets his camera linger, unworried about any awkwardness that might spontaneously arise. The movie, covered under the Mumblecore umbrella, runs just under 80 minutes but you feel like you know these characters as though it were two hours. That’s because we stay with them—in the bathroom, on the couch, in the kitchen– even after the conversation ends and someone leaves the room. What does Jenny do while she waits for Kevin to find his pot in the kitchen? Well, not a lot, as you’d expect, which is somehow reassuring if not a tedious meditation.
Like Swanberg’s 2013 hit Drinking Buddies, which concentrated on the subtleties of romantic relationships, Happy Christmas lightly investigates the dynamics of gender roles, this time through the lens of marriage. There is little melodrama, but there is realistic discussion negotiating work and responsibilities. Jeff lives in an office most of the day while Kelly, a writer and aspiring novelist, plays the parent, categorizations that each carry their own personal frustrations.
Kelly voices some of these concerns to Carson and Jenny over a beer by the basement’s uniquely decorated Tiki-bar. Soon enough the three are chatting about her writing erotic novels, thinking up fantastical scenarios that will earn millions of dollars, an ideal environment that allows them to riff on silly ideas. It matches the equally bubbly and angsty Kendrick, who seems in control of herself one moment and completely unhinged the next. “I don’t want to be the person who does the same kind of stuff,” she says while getting high. Nobody’s really listening.
She continues on with little forward direction, similar to the film, which provides not so much a standard story arc as a slope. Why do some people have a tough time growing up? Happy Christmas doesn’t really answer that question. It’s just content to contemplate it for a while.
It’s pretty clear that sex is the primary subject of Very Good Girls. You don’t even have to know the basic premise– two girls make a pact to lose their virginity before they leave for college—to find that out. You just have to watch the opening scene at an outdoor grocery market. An old woman is innocently inspecting melons and soon enough the camera is briefly inspecting her chest.
That’s about the most clever thing Naomi Foner, making her directorial debut, films in this uninspired, heavy drama that should really be a breezy summer vignette. And it’s really a shame considering the cast she has assembled. Dakota Fanning as Lilly and Elizabeth Olsen as Gerri take most of the screen time as attractive, edgy teens in Brooklyn. They ride bikes on the Brighton Beach boardwalk and anxiously kill time before they leave home.
The problem is that their parents are actually played by some pretty good actors who unfortunately have little to do. Ellen Barkin and Clarke Gregg are involved in a frustrated marriage that pushes away Lilly, while Demi Moore and Richard Dreyfuss play Gerri’s supposedly embarrassing liberal mom and dad. They’re cornered into insulting subplots. You shouldn’t make entrée steaks into bite size appetizers.
On one of their bike rides the girls bump into an ice-cream vendor named David (Boyd Holbrook), a dreamy beach blonde mannequin. Gerri sets her sights on him while he locks eyes with Lilly. The levity of the spontaneous encounter evaporates. Foner zooms in on Fanning’s blue eyes now fallen into a contemplative stare and quickly the tale turns into a Young Adult novel. Secrets, guilt, angst, tears, sex.
David is actually an aspiring photographer and lives in a gothic looking loft in Manhattan used for photo shoots. He wants to move to Paris, a goal that corresponds tidily with the impending trips to college. None of this really makes much sense, including a bizarre photo shoot at a basketball court. Most of the dialogue is repetitive. Gerri keeps asking, “Should I call him?” “You think he likes me?” Lilly rolls her eyes because she’s actually dating him.
Foner is an Oscar-nominated writer, famous for penning Running on Empty and for also being the mother of Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal. But there is something out of touch here trying to channel Little Darlings in 2014 New York City. Another meaningless sidebar involves Peter Saarsgard (Maggie Gyllenhaal’s husband) as Lilly’s pervy boss at a touristy riverboat company.
Olsen is too old and wise for this role. It’s not usually a problem but she’s not right for Gerri. The entire time as she naively gloats about speaking to David, you can’t help but feel she knows what Lilly’s been doing. It’s a shame. At a certain point you just want these girls to go to college already. They’re more than ready to leave and so are you.