“As the opening credits roll in Joe Swanberg’s Happy Christmas, the festivalgoer’s eyes have to do a quick adjustment,” begins Jason Bailey at Flavorwire. “Here, in a sea of slick, crisp, clean high-def video, Swanberg has gone retro; for the first time, the prolific video filmmaker is shooting on Super 16mm film, with cinematographer Ben Richardson aggressively pushing the grain. It lends the picture a roughness, a homemade quality, recalling the works of John Cassavettes, who encouraged the improvisation of actors and frequently cast his friends and family (as Swanberg does here). Swanberg’s let-the-camera-run aesthetic can go either way—towards self-indulgence, or overheard, naturalistic candor. Thanks in no small part to the considerable gifts of stars Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, and Lena Dunham, Happy Christmas goes the right way.”
At Thompson on Hollywood, Beth Hanna sets it up for us: “[W]ife and mother Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) is burdened with too many responsibilities, while her younger and wilder sister-in-law Jenny (Anna Kendrick) is burdened with too few. Jenny is a mess. Having broken up with her boyfriend, she comes to stay with her brother Jeff (played by Swanberg) and Kelly at their home in Chicago while she figures out what her next move is. Jenny has a drinking problem, and blacks out at a party the night of her arrival. After this sloppy first impression, Kelly’s wary of letting Jenny live in their basement, and worried that Jenny could in some way be harmful to their baby boy, Jude (played by Swanberg’s actual son, a robustly-proportioned little fellow also named Jude, who steals every scene he’s in)…. Swanberg has a talent for creating lived-in female characters, and for collaborating with actresses who can winningly roll with his improv-heavy style. Happy Christmas is no different.”
“I have exceedingly modest expectations for his projects, in part because they tend to be equally modest in scope and ambition,” writes the Dissolve‘s Nathan Rabin. “I was thoroughly surprised and impressed, if not quite blown away, by Happy Christmas, which might be Swanberg’s best film to date, and has been one of the nicest, most unexpected surprises of Sundance 2014…. The cast is uniformly excellent, particularly Kendrick, who carries the film, and Lynskey, who makes what could be a joyless scold into a lively, three-dimensional character with a life force all her own.”
“Joe Swanberg’s follow-up to Drinking Buddies is short and slight, but undeniably charming,” writes the Guardian‘s Henry Barnes. “It has woozy purpose, even if its methods (the dialogue was mostly improvised) and themes—eternal adolescence, new parenthood, hook-ups and break-ups—aren’t exactly new to the director’s repertoire.”
“Comfortable and conversational, Swanberg’s characters move and sound like real people, and while that leads to some repetition and slack about an hour or so into the film, Happy Christmas is still Swanberg’s most mature and satisfying film yet,” adds Kate Erbland at Film.com.
Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn: “Audiences entirely unfamiliar with Swanberg’s many films would do well to start with Happy Christmas, a modest work of shrewd storytelling riddled with potent themes but never overstating them. Admittedly, Happy Christmas is a thin piece of storytelling that gradually winds down with a series of terse exchanges and a throwaway resolution. But it also epitomizes Swanberg’s abilities as an entertaining filmmaker—an outcome of his loose technique clearly visible ever since 2007’s Hannah Takes the Stairs, but now manifested in a way that doesn’t flaunt its raggedy production values.”
As Jenny’s friend Carson, “Dunham’s contribution is fairly minor, but effective, and in his supporting role Swanberg obviously has great rapport with his often funny young son Jude,” writes Justin Lowe in the Hollywood Reporter, “but there’s far too much time devoted to scenes featuring the boy that don’t advance the plot.”
“Lynskey in particular is a champ at make the small throwaway comment funny or touching. But Kendrick struggles a bit with her role.” Tim Grierson elaborates at Paste.
“One could look at Happy Christmas as a step backwards from the commercial progress Swanberg made with Drinking Buddies,” writes Rodrigo Perez at the Playlist, “but in truth it’s akin to a less-successful lateral move. The inexhaustible indie filmmaker might not have struck gold twice in a row, but the silver linings of Happy Christmas are largely engaging, truthful and affecting.”
Magnolia Pictures and Paramount Pictures have partnered up to distribute Happy Christmas worldwide, reports Nigel M. Smith for Indiewire.
Viewing (3’01”). Swanberg and his cast talk to EW.
Updates, 2/1: “I liked this movie more than last year’s overpraised Drinking Buddies,” writes Grantland‘s Wesley Morris. “Swanberg’s movies live and die by the improvised inspiration of who’s in them. Here there’s a scene between Kendrick, Lynskey, and Lena Dunham, who plays a friend of Kendrick, that gets into the alleged injustice of being a stay-at-home mom. Kendrick and Dunham’s characters don’t have kids, so they have the luxury of preaching feminism. But it’s a funny conversation, fueled by alcohol, that pushes the movie open.”
“[G]entle and generous and gifted with 35mm texture, it might be Swanberg’s warmest, most easily enjoyable film to date,” writes Guy Lodge at In Contention.
But for Variety‘s Peter Debruge, “Happy Christmas demonstrates that Joe Swanberg makes better babies than movies. The evidence is Swanberg’s 2-year-old son Jude, who handily upstages anything co-stars Melanie Lynskey and Anna Kendrick can come up with to generate interest onscreen, to the extent that one can imagine a greater audience for 80 minutes of ‘baby Jude does the darnedest things’ YouTube videos.”
As for the improvisation, Alexandra Marvar, writing at Cinespect, suggests that “what the audience gains—more humanity and perhaps enhanced cast chemistry—comes in lieu of the philosophical insights given to us by great film writers. And for this writer, its effect was one of jarring awareness of the directorial style, as Dunham and Kendrick say ‘um’ and ‘like’ on screen an inordinate number of times. It begets a bit of an ‘uncanny valley’ effect that takes at least the first act to see past.”
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