“I’m convinced that Swanberg is one of the strongest, if not the strongest, forces millennials have in film…”

It would appear that I’m one of the only film critics who affirms, appreciates, and goes as far as to recommend Joe Swanberg’s style and films on a consistent basis. Part of me isn’t surprised at the fact that most of his films accumulate such negative reactions but part of me wonders why so many are opposed to his style of filmmaking. I did a thirty-minute presentation on Swanberg in my high school film studies course, discussing several films of his, showing clips, analyzing different ideas he brings to the table, and went into the concept of the film subgenre (not “movement”) of mumblecore. After the presentation, I got numerous people telling me, “I loved your presentation, and he sounds very interesting, but I could never sit through a movie like that.”

Of course my classmates were judging the films solely on their naturalistic style, shocked and amazed for it was something I’m willing to bet all of them never saw in film before. What silently angered me was people would be willing to watch teenagers be drawn in broadstrokes and narrow-minded cliches in films such as Project X but wouldn’t be willing to see a film about college-age characters growing up and going through rough patches in their life, an experience that would undoubtedly provide for intense relatability and empathy for the teenagers themselves. ‘Is it too close to home or are you genuinely not interested?,’ was the question I had in my mind.

Happy Christmas
Written & Directed by
Joe Swanberg
Lena Dunham, Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey
Release Date
26 June 2014
Steve’s Grade: B+

If you haven’t already warmed up to Swanberg’s style, then his latest installment “Happy Christmas” will not appeal to you. For somebody like me, who has seen almost everything from his early, early works to his current projects, including last year’s fantastic sleeper hit Drinking Buddies and this year’s equally great 24 Exposures, seeing Happy Christmas is a treat because one can see Swanberg filming techniques become less film school and more professional, yet still maintain the kind of intimacy and naturalism that was imbedded in his early projects. The only thing that is different here is the color-contrast is much more prominent, thanks to better camera equipment, and lengthy, unsteady shots are replaced with static ones that are much more cinematic and stable.

The film concerns the married couple of Jeff (Joe Swanberg) and Kelly (Melanie Lynskey), who are in their early thirties; he’s a filmmaker, she’s a stay-at-home mom, taking care of their two-year-old son Jude (Swanberg’s real-life son) working occasionally as a novelist in Chicago. Their humble life is rocked when Jeff’s younger sister Jenny (Anna Kendrick) arrives. Well-meaning but completely irresponsible, the two cultures clash as Jeff and Kelly are growing out of that listless funk that Swanberg captured in his early films and on to the quiet and satisfactory existence of thirty-something adults. The problem is that Jenny is still in that listless phase Swanberg captured in his early projects like Hannah Takes the Stairs and Kissing on the Mouth, his first film. She smokes pot on a regular basis, passes out wherever is comfortable, and wastes away in Jeff and Kelly’s basement, slugging Three Floyds’ Zombie Dust without a care in the world.

This sort of shock creates great friction within the home of a couple who are clearly trying to make what little they have work. Their income isn’t steady, they both chose to follow personal passions over money, and now they’re trying to make it work with what they can. Being that this is a Swanberg film, there is a great deal of talking, some of which is relevant to the core story (I assure you there is one) and some that isn’t. The great thing about Happy Christmas is the great thing about all Swanberg films, which is they exercise their slices of life so well to the point that you could believe you’re watching real people interact with each other and not compensated actors. Some of the funniest scenes come into play when Jenny’s friend Carson (Lena Dunham) comes over and they talk about whether or not they’d want a kid in the future. Carson also makes a comment that deeply resonates to the young mothers in the audience, as she whispers to Jenny about how beautiful Kelly is in the way that “I didn’t have time to take a shower, I didn’t have time to do anything, I’m just ‘momming’ it up.”

While the film is slower than the last two Swanberg efforts, and it ends on a more abrupt note than it should, its conversations resonate to those stuck in that trance of growing up and staying young, and those who are finally trying to move on after being stuck in a brutal, directionless rut for years. I’m convinced that Swanberg is one of the strongest, if not the strongest, forces millennials have in film, showing their struggles, their lack of commitment to certain hobbies and passions, and, sometimes, their overall whiny and sometimes off-putting nature. The picture Swanberg paints may not be the one you want to see, but you should see it anyway, for it likely describes you in some way.

Review by Lead Film Critic, Steve Pulaski