Jeff (Joe Swanberg) works as a filmmaker in Chicago, while his wife Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) stays at home in order to raise their two-year-old son, Jude (Jude Swanberg). Kelly, a published novelist, all but abandoned her career to become a stay at home mother because they could not afford daycare. Now, it seems Kelly is getting the itch to write again, but constantly struggles to find the time and energy to do so. There is also the inherent guilt of a mother wanting to do something solely for herself rather than doing everything for her child.
The arrival of Jeff’s younger sister, Jenny (Anna Kendrick), into their household offers the possibility of a live-in babysitter, that is if the twentysomething is ready for that responsibility. On her first night in Chicago, Jenny goes out to a party with her friend Carson (Lena Dunham) only to get totally s**t-faced and pass out in the host’s bedroom. The morning after, Jenny is far too hungover to fulfill her promise to babysit Jude, so Kelly has to pay a babysitter (Mark Webber) instead. It takes a while for Kelly to forgive Jenny for her recklessly irresponsible behavior, which has presumably been fueled by a recent break up.
Eventually it is Jenny and Carson who reignite Kelly’s creative fire with the proposal of writing an erotic novel. The three women brainstorm pitches for Kelly’s virginal foray into the “mommy porn” genre, then they move on to humorously considering the most appropriate terminology to use for male and female genitalia. Kelly finally has the cheerleaders that she so desperately needs for motivation to write; she even works out a compromise with Jeff to carve out some alone time to work on her next novel. At first it seems as though the erotic novel is just a way for Kelly to “sell out” and make an easy paycheck, but that is actually just Jenny’s naiveté shining though. Instead, this new novel is a way for Kelly to have fun with writing again, rather then diving right back into another piece of hyper-intellectual literature.
One of Joe Swanberg’s most personal films, Happy Christmas functions as a loving ode to his wife Kris Swanberg, who had to put her creative career on the back burner after the birth of Jude. Swanberg intelligently discusses some of the challenges that two creative (read: financially insecure) parents might face while trying to raise a young child. First and foremost, this is a story of female empowerment as Kelly navigates her way to becoming more than just a mother. Kelly is incredibly empathetic as a struggling writer who is dealing with motherhood. Using her natural Kiwi accent in this role, Melanie Lynskey seems remarkably comfortable with her fictional family. Her report with Jude is excellent, allowing him to steal any of the scenes that they share. Then again, with his natural comedic talent, the two-year-old steals every scene in which he appears.
Swanberg drops Jenny into the equation to provide the naive perspective of an outsider, a childless twentysomething who clearly does not understand the responsibilities of raising children. Jenny serves as a perfect example for why perpetual adolescents should never raise children. She is selfish brat with no concern for anyone else, highlighted by her not bringing any presents to Christmas, not even for Jude. In fact, she avoids celebrating Christmas with them altogether. Jenny also makes no effort to find a job in Chicago, presumably planning on sleeping in Jeff and Kelly’s tiki decorated basement for a long time. Jenny is an irresponsible mess and shows no signs of being able to straighten herself up. As an unrepentant binge drinker who clumsily hooks up with whichever guy is the most convenient, Jenny is by no means a positive representation of a young woman, but that does not make this character any less real. Acting totally against type, Anna Kendrick nails the fatalistic decent into uncontrollable drunkenness just as adroitly as she does the incomparable agony of the next morning’s hangover.
For his first feature to ever break into the Sundance program, Swanberg utilizes grainy 16mm film, giving Happy Christmas a texture and warmness that is unmatched in the digital world. This visual aesthetic also seems to be a purposeful reference to a bygone era of filmmaking, specifically New York independent filmmakers of the 1970s, such as John Cassavetes and Woody Allen. Unabashedly a woman-centered film, Happy Christmas presents two devastatingly authentic female characters who may have been roughly outlined by Swanberg but were fully colored in by Lynskey and Kendrick. The result is a beautiful and loving portrait of these two women, warts and all.