The new dysfunctional family comedy Happy Christmas may have modest goals, but it makes an impact thanks to several lively and well-crafted performances. Chief among those is Anna Kendrick. The Oscar nominee from Up in the Air is delightfully scattered as Jenny, a young woman fresh off a break-up who retreats to her brother’s home in Chicago in hopes of reconnecting with old friends and sustaining a semi-permanent buzz.
Playing Jenny’s brother, Jeff, is Joe Swanberg, who wrote and directed the movie with a flair for the pungently comic. Jeff and his wife, Kelly (Melanie Lynskey), both have creative jobs; he works in film production and she’s a novelist battling a dry spell. They have a one-year-old named Jude, played by Swanberg’s real son (a little scene stealer), and a comfortable marriage that is slightly jarred by Jenny's arrival with luggage as well as personal baggage.
Rather than spend her first night in town with her family, she goes to a party with her best friend, Carson (Lena Dunham), and proceeds to get so plastered Jeff has to come retrieve her. Startled by her sister-in-law's thoughtlessness, Kelly doubts she can trust a hungover Jenny to babysit later that day. There’s no harm done, though, as Jenny is accompanied by the level-headed Kevin (Mark Webber), a family friend who happens to be a pot dealer. The two of them attempt to make a couple, and Jenny becomes an unexpected inspiration to Kelly, thanks to the suggestion that they collaborate on a “sexy mom novel.”
The movie has a breezy, unforced rhythm rooted in naturalism, enhancing the feeling that these relationships really are familial and familiar. Swanberg has been unfairly disparaged for representing a school of independent film called “mumblecore,” notable for its low budgets and production values and amateur actors. Those traits really don't apply here, though, nor in his last film, the little-seen but pleasant Drinking Buddies; both had low budgets, certainly, but professional and more than competent actors. He’s made some stinkers, such as 24 Exposures, which was borderline misogynistic. That might have been an unfortunate fluke, though, as this film gives three solid actresses a lot of room to play.