Happy Christmas movie review: can’t choose your family

MaryAnn’s quick take: Compulsively watchable. Joe Swanberg is a master of the subtlest of dramatic observation, and his films are unlike anything other filmmakers are giving us right now.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
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Writer-director Joe Swanberg follows up last year’s marvelous slice-of-life romantic dramedy Drinking Buddies with another compulsively watchable film in which not all that much really happens and you nevertheless cannot look away.

Jenny (Anna Kendrick: Pitch Perfect) just broke up with her boyfriend, so she decides to start over in Chicago, and comes to stay with her brother, Jeff (Swanberg: You’re Next); his wife, Kelly (Melanie Lynskey: They Came Together); and their toddler (Jude Swanberg, the filmmaker’s own son). (It’s Christmastime, but you’d barely know it; holiday clichés are nowhere to be found.) Jenny is kind of a fuckup — a normal human condition few films grant to women — and upsets the household in all sorts of ways… though not all of them bad, as when she inspires novelist Kelly to stop putting off her dreams of getting back to her work, which has been put on hold by new motherhood.

A master of the subtlest of dramatic observation, Swanberg gently teases wistfully recognizable frustration, tolerance, and warmth out of familial love and annoyance in a story that, while short — the film runs only 78 minutes — affords a remarkable amount of breathing space to its characters. Swanberg’s unforced humanity and realism are unlike anything other filmmakers are giving us right now.

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Thu, Jul 24, 2014 4:34pm

Hmm. I’d been planning to avoid this based on the trailers, which seemed to paint Jenny as the standard “adorably quirky” MPDG. I’ll give it a look after all…

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  RogerBW
Thu, Jul 24, 2014 4:56pm

She’s definitely no MPDG.

Fri, Jul 25, 2014 2:43pm

Not to be snarky, but this looks a lot like the movies my wife devours like potato chips on the Hallmark Channel (I’m pointing our a type, not mocking the HC, which has some well-made feel-good stuff). So it seems a bit much to pay for the same thing–especially if it’s not even as long as a “free” made-for-cable movie. I really like the quirky Anna Kendrick, so I hope this does well. Our blockbuster, big studio release theater chain won’t show it, I’m sure. ‘Nother good review, MA.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Beowulf
Fri, Jul 25, 2014 4:46pm

It’s not at all that kind of movie. And it is available on demand!

Sat, Jul 26, 2014 6:55am

Be sure to stay through and after the credits. There’s almost three minutes of an extra scene after the credits end.

Wed, Aug 06, 2014 9:24pm

I saw it last night and enjoyed it … right up until it ended. The place they chose to stop felt random, as if somebody had stolen the last 10 to 15 minutes of footage. Were you satisfied with the ending?

(And yes, I did see all of it — I’m a compulsive credits watcher. The extra scene was fun, but didn’t add anything conclusion-like, as the extras in Begin Again did.)

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  cinderkeys
Wed, Aug 06, 2014 10:26pm

I was happy with the ending. It’s not pat, it doesn’t solve any major problems, it just says: We are family, and we will deal with it.