by Marina Brafa
It’s winter time again: the scent of cinnamon wafting through the air, the decorating of gingerbread houses and Christmas movies hitting theaters in a jingle-bell-like staccato. Ready for some nauseatingly kitschy Christmas staples? Or something new?
For the second third installment of our Cringe series, we are featuring the film Happy Christmas.
Happy Christmas (2014)
Why does the film’s title use the word “happy” instead of the more common “merry”? Considering the amount of alcohol flowing around, “merry” would certainly have been an appropriate choice. But this movie is less concerned with what makes a “merry” Christmas time and instead focuses on the emotional state of being “happy” and what this means especially for women nowadays.
The story begins in December so the holiday is right around the corner; a colorfully decorated Christmas tree dominates the living room, under it a pile of presents. It is set up in the house of Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) and Jeff (Joe Swanberg) who live in a quiet Chicago neighborhood with their son Jude. Kelly is a stay-at-home-mom while her husband is works in the film production business. A few days before Christmas, Jeff’s 27-year-old sister Jenny (Anna Kendrick) shows up. She has just broken up with her boyfriend and soon it becomes apparent that she has a hard time being responsible and not being selfish. One night after getting wasted (again) she forgets a pizza in the oven and nearly burns down the house. In Hollywood-style movies, this scene would have been blown up and dramatized. Fortunately (and realistically) there are fire detectors and the house does NOT burn down to the ground. Problem solved. What is more interesting is Jenny’s reaction when confronted with her irresponsible behavior. She doesn’t want to bear the blame but rather accuses her relatives of overreacting. Director and scriptwriter Joe Swanberg (who plays Jeff) could have focused on and exploited the fire/burning-house-aspect of the scene like a Hollywood-style movie probably would have done (imagine brave firefighters, all family members die but one etc). Instead he uses the scene to highlight the interpersonal conflict that comes with it, namely between Kelly, Jeff and Jenny. This might be less exciting for your eyes but more so for your brain.
The fire incident is one of the reasons why Kelly has a hard time leaving her son with her sister-in-law. Viewers slowly realize that Jeff had not revealed Jenny’s problematic character to his wife prior to Jenny’s arrival. The other reason for Kelly’s mistrust is more self-centered: She became used to being a stay-at-home-mom. In a conversation between Jenny, Carson (her best friend played by Lena Dunham) and Kelly, the latter admits that she wanted to work again after giving birth but that real life was different than expected so she gave up the idea and decided to take care of the child. And, she adds, “I am not complaining, I love Jude so much” - as if she had to apologize for something. The talk between the three women is one of the best scenes in the movie because they explicitly touch upon the question of female self-fulfillment in today’s society in a very concrete way, connected to their individual situations.
Jenny is the prototypical 20-something woman floating through life, in and out of relationships and doing what she wants – the character’s development does not get much deeper, unfortunately. Her friend Carson (proto-feminist Lena Dunham, famed for her TV show Girls) is giving the women’s conversations a “feminist spin”. Real-life-Dunham’s vast knowledge and experience in this field is reflected in her role. She is the one asking Kelly if she is happy(!) with the way her life goes. However, and this is important to point out, she never says the word “feminism” or anything related. Kelly immediately answers “I am not not a feminist…” and Carsons replies “I am not...” She does not finish her sentence but we can by imagination: “...saying that you are/are not a feminist”. Kelly’s and Carson’s reactions shows that in 21st century Western societies some women (and men) take a mental shortcut to feminist ideas when they are talking about certain topics like childcare. But feminism is just one point of view (a very important one though) for talking about what women go through at home, in the office, at university, school, on the streets and so on. Feminism ought to be a means of (self-)reflection and not an automated reaction.
Kelly is the secret star of the movie. While Jenny’s development is predictable and Carson just pops up when the story needs a good friend or intellectual input, Kelly undergoes a subtle change. After talking to Jenny and Carson she reconsiders writing and gets out of the house physically and mentally. The office becomes a meeting point where the three women come up with ideas for an erotic novel. Like their first conversation about what it means to be a happy woman, the dialogues about what makes a good-selling erotic novel are witty. The three reflect on what women think other women (and society in general) wants them to read in such books: The language should be salacious and simple, the plot gets reduced to the formula submissive woman meets handsome, potent man. A satirical hint on existing books and films might be intended.
The end of the Happy Christmas comes abruptly. No big happy ending (although it would fit title-wise perfectly, wouldn’t it?) but more of a “life goes on” kind of end. So, is everyone happy now? Shouldn’t that be the aim of every Christmas movie? Classic ones, yes. However, I like that Happy Christmas is not that simple. It presents the holiday as it is for so many people: a coming together of family members and/or friends, a gift-marathon, an abundance of food and drink and having a good time - and a day on which you have to deal with the flaws and faults of your family and friends.
What makes the movie a long stretch to watch though is its wrong focus. It seems like Jenny and her story were supposed to be the core of the film but her development is clichéd and predictable. On the other hand, Kelly’s story would have had potential since her character tries to change but the conditions surrounding her stifle any of her ambitions. There lies “conflicting gold” that could have been dug up by the author. Still, if you are looking for a Christmas treat without an old white-bearded man popping out of the chimney this one will do it. Plus: The movie’s soundtrack is nice (playlist on Youtube)!