Thursday, August 7, 2014

(Happy) Christmas in August

Kind of pleased to have seen what may be the bookends of the box office list, having seen both Guardians of the Galaxy and Joe Swanberg's Happy Christmas this last weekend. Amid all the hyperbole surrounding most summer blockbuster entertainments (including the shock & awe campaign promoting Guardians), that a homespun indie just shows up gently in a rep theatre, with no real campaign but a vibe of "hey, we got a movie here, you wanna see it?" makes one want to see it just by this modest contrast. Happy Christmas feels like a roadshow, wandering from theatre to theatre unfolding itself to any who seek it out.

That leisurely release pace is completely suited to Swanberg's movie, a relaxed affair that is, per Swanberg's usual process, largely improvised by its cast within a framed story. Happy Christmas concerns Chicago couple Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) and Jeff (Swanberg), whose family life is disrupted by the arrival of Jenny (Anna Kendrick), Jeff's well-meaning but alcoholic and irresponsible younger sister. Kelly and Jeff have more than enough problems raising their 2-year-old son (Jude Swanberg) and struggling with creative endeavors and career/family demands, yet all of these problems head toward a kind of resolution, even as Jenny takes her first tentative steps toward responsibility.

Swanberg rose with the mumblecore movement in American indies, and Happy Christmas is very much of that school: an intimate, low-budget chronicle of white, middle class urban angst. It is a decidedly lo-fi affair, but its modest pleasures keep adding up, from Kendrick's immersion in Jenny (a rare Kendrick character who's not as smart as she is) to the warmth of Ben Richardson's 16mm cinematography to the uncanny rightness of Jude Swanberg's performance to the escalations of the cast's improvisations - scenes that feel like acting exercises quickly but smoothly lapse into something painful, suspenseful and joyously funny. Lynskey's a joy to watch in all of her scenes, quietly processing the audacity of Jenny's intrusions into her creative life and then startled to find some kind of purchase in Jenny's insane ideas. Lena Dunham glides in and out of the action like a celebrity guest at a jazz club, adding new shades and wit to every scene she joins. The novel the three women wind up writing together sounds joyously, spectacularly awful, and we're pretty sure you'll be dying to read it.

Happy Christmas is ideal counterprogramming amid the onslaught of summer movies, with all of its low-budget quirks giving it a real warmth lacking in most effects-driven summer spectaculars, and its improvisations lending a suspense absent in high-concept, lowest common denominator Hollywood movies-by-committee. And like any good summer movie, it even has a post-credits scene well worth sticking around for.

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