After a break up, young and irresponsible Jenny (Anna Kendrick) moves to Chicago to live with her brother Jeff (Joe Swanberg), his wife Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) and their child. Despite a difficult cohabitation at first, Jenny's influence helps Kelly, a novelist, change her outlook on her life, career and relationship.

3.5
A lo-fi look at real, everyday people.

MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: The gap between those adults who have children and those who are still experiencing their own extended adolescence is explored with zest and sensitivity in Joe Swanberg’s latest low-budget improvisational drama, Happy Christmas. Jeff (Swanberg) and Kelly (the wonderful New Zealand actress Melanie Lynskey, who retains her native accent for the role) are an affectionate married couple. He’s a filmmaker preoccupied with earning a living. She’s a one-time novelist turned ambivalent stay-at-home mother. They live in a daggy-cool retro house in Chicago (complete with Hawaii-themed thatch-walled basement with Tiki Bar – Swanberg’s own real life house). They’re raising their delightful two-year-old son, Jude, who is played by filmmaker’s own infant son, a child with such brilliant natural performance skills and comic timing that he seriously steals the show whenever he’s on screen.

Domestic harmony is interrupted when Jeff’s irresponsible younger sister, Jenny (Anna Kendrick), moves in to sort out her life after a messy breakup. On her first night in town Jenny gets drop-dead drunk and has to be carried home, much to the embarrassment of her old college friend, Carson (Lena Dunham). Then there’s her pot smoking, the way she burns pizza and sets off the fire alarm in the middle of the night, and the fact she hooks up with the first guy she meets – the family’s babysitter and dope-dealer (Mark Webber). Can Jeff and Kelly trust her to look after their kid for even a few hours while they go Christmas shopping? Much awkward and realistically funny dialogue ensues.

The beauty of this simple story lies in its non-judgemental observations of some very believable female characters. The issue of women trying to juggle artistic achievement with motherhood is rarely depicted with such calm interest. It’s also lovely to watch the way in which the scatty younger woman becomes a surprising source of inspiration to her older and more sensible sister-in-law. Kendrick and Lynskey play off each other beautifully as potential rivals turned comrades. Jenny persuades Kelly to make time to write and to fight for her right to fulfilment. Together they workshop a commercial erotic novel, with some candid additional contributions from Dunham’s character. These hilarious scenes (including feminist discussions of rape fantasies and musings on the difficulty of finding good words for genitalia) extend through the final credits, so be sure to stay for them.

Prolific lo-fi micro-budget filmmaker Joe Swanberg (Hannah Takes the Stairs, LOL, Alexander the Last) broke out last year with the excellent Drinking Buddies. Set in a boutique brewery, that was his first film to use established name actors, including Kendrick (playing the uptight opposite of her Happy Christmas character) and Olivia Wilde, who gave a splendidly nuanced performance as a wild-spirited screw-up. That film was narratively complex and technically polished in a way that Happy Christmas is not. Shot on grainy 16mm film (DOP Ben Richardson also shot Beasts of the Southern Wild) with the most basic lighting and production design, Happy Christmas has a distinct 1970s home-movie feel about it, complete with retro pop soundtrack by Swedish songwriter Joel Alme. The improvised dialogue, a constant in Swanberg films, may irritate some with its proliferation of youthful American quirks (the characters say ‘like’ every second word). But the performances are so believable, and there’s such warmth, that you’re likely to leave the cinema with a smile and a nod to Swanberg for daring to make such good drama out of simple everyday scenarios.