This week, we’ll be focusing our posts on holiday movies, including several that we feel are worth putting into your holiday viewing rotation this year. Follow along here.
The holidays are an awkward time. The uncomfortable conversations between family members who may not see each other during the rest of the year are perfect fodder for mumblecore, a genre that is built on the discomfort of human interactions. While Christmas movies are typically either heartwarming tales of romance and family togetherness or nasty horror stories, a group of mumblecore filmmakers have found a place for their particular cinematic style that fits with the holiday season, highlighting the messiness of personal relationships, with occasional heartwarming or horrific interludes.
The most widely seen is mumblecore godfather Joe Swanberg’s 2014 movie Happy Christmas, which is also the most traditionally Christmassy. Like a lot of mainstream Christmas movies, Happy Christmas focuses on a family coming together for the holidays, working through their differences and reaching a greater understanding. It’s still a Swanberg movie, so it also includes fumbling sex scenes, halting improvised dialogue, and one of the longest awkward silences ever put to film. Anna Kendrick, who worked with Swanberg on the previous year’s Drinking Buddies, stars as Jenny, a 27-year-old screw-up who moves to Chicago to live with her brother Jeff (Swanberg) and his wife Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) after breaking up with her boyfriend.
All of the mumblecore Christmas movies are about lost people trying to figure out their lives during the holidays, but Happy Christmas may be the most hopeful. Jenny is a bit of a mess, and she makes a poor start when she gets so drunk on her first night in Chicago that her friend Carson (Lena Dunham) has to call Jeff in the middle of the night to literally lift Jenny off the floor at a party and take her home. Even though Happy Christmas is as shapeless and discursive as any Swanberg movie, it builds a subtle but satisfying character arc for Jenny, who continues to be immature but finds purpose in taking care of Jeff and Kelly’s toddler son (played by Swanberg’s actual son Jude) and helping novelist Kelly with a new project, writing a “mommy porn” book that will sell better than her previous literary effort.
Happy Christmas begins with a montage of ramshackle but cozy Christmas decorations around Jeff and Kelly’s house, and it ends on Christmas morning, as an ecstatic Jude opens presents while the adults deal with their more complex problems. There are no tidy resolutions, but there’s a sense that things may work out eventually. That’s similarly the case in the best of the mumblecore Christmas movies, also from 2014, Charles Poekel’s Christmas, Again.
There’s a weariness expressed in that comma in the middle of the title that extends to the entire movie, which stars fellow mumblecore filmmaker Kentucker Audley as a Christmas tree salesman appropriately named Noel. For five years now, Noel has been spending the holidays living in a trailer on a Brooklyn street, working 12-hour shifts selling trees, wreaths, lights, and other holiday essentials to local residents. As indicated by the numerous inquiries from customers and associates, Noel previously worked this job with a girlfriend he’s since broken up with, and it doesn’t help that his counterparts on each day’s alternate 12-hour shifts are a happy couple who’ve just moved in together.
Most of Christmas, Again consists of quiet, self-contained interactions between Noel and the people who filter through the Christmas tree lot, asking many of the same questions and dealing with their own miniature holiday dramas. One night, Noel finds a young woman passed out on a nearby bench, about to be robbed, and he carries her back to his trailer to sleep off her inebriation. Lydia (Hannah Gross) could be an alternate version of Happy Christmas’ Jenny, avoiding her own troubled relationship by getting way too drunk.
When Lydia appears, it seems briefly like Christmas, Again could turn into an intimate urban love story like Before Sunrise or Aaron Katz’s beautiful and affecting mumblecore romance Quiet City. But Lydia merely drifts in and out of the story, only a slightly more solid presence than any of Noel’s other patrons. Poekel, who worked as a Christmas tree salesman himself, focuses on the small details, like the need to constantly sweep up stray needles so that customers aren’t reminded that all the trees are dead. The movie’s bittersweet ending for Noel and Lydia is the perfect grace note to a movie about finding small, simple bits of happiness.
The filmmakers behind Lost Holiday and White Reindeer take darker approaches to their mumblecore Christmas stories, although their lost, haunted protagonists still come out slightly better off by the end. Like Jenny, Lost Holiday’s Margaret (Kate Lyn Sheil) is an aimless trainwreck undergoing a quarter-life crisis, reeling over a break-up and coping with her problems via far too many intoxicants. A grad student living in New York City, she returns to her suburban Maryland hometown for the holidays and is immediately confronted with the sight of her ex-boyfriend Mark (William Jackson Harper) embracing his new fiancée.
Writer-directors Michael Kerry Matthews and Thomas Matthews frequently circle back to that Christmas party where Margaret and Mark encounter each other again, which kicks off Margaret’s harrowing, ridiculous holiday odyssey. She and her best friend Henry (Thomas Matthews) leave the party to go buy drugs, and at the drug dealer’s house Margaret spots regional construction heiress Amber Jones (Ismenia Mendes) peeking through the window while the drug dealer goes down on Margaret. The next day, Margaret and Henry hear a local news report about Amber’s supposed abduction, and they decide to solve the case themselves, since Margaret is certain it’s a scam.
The Matthews make Lost Holiday into a sort of female-driven mumblecore take on The Big Lebowski, albeit on a much smaller scale. Margaret is a less sociopathic version of Alia Shawkat’s Search Party protagonist Dory Sief, but she still latches onto the mystery as a way to give her chaotic life meaning and distract from her lingering feelings for Mark. Being home for the holidays has caused her to regress, and just setting foot in her family home is an experience that she likens to night terrors. She’d rather break the law and risk bodily harm than confront her feelings, although she has to do that by the end anyway.
Margaret could potentially be neighbors with White Reindeer’s Suzanne Barrington (Anna Margaret Hollyman), who also lives in the greater Washington, D.C., area and embarks on a path of self-destruction. Suzanne has a better excuse, since the movie begins with her husband’s murder in a botched robbery just 24 days before Christmas. Suzanne is ostensibly more established and grown-up than other mumblecore Christmas protagonists, with a stable job as a real estate agent, a nice suburban home, and a fulfilling marriage. That last part may have been less secure than she realized, though, and she learns after his death that her husband had been having an affair with exotic dancer Fantasia (Laura Lemar-Goldsborough).
That piece of information is enough to send Suzanne into a spiral of cocaine, shoplifting, and sex parties, although writer-director Zach Clark gives those activities a strangely wholesome quality. She does cocaine with Fantasia after they form an unlikely bond, she overspends irresponsibly on holiday decorations, and she attends a sex party thrown by her friendly neighbors (one of whom is played by Joe Swanberg, of course), in the house she helped them buy. There are worse ways to cope with grief, and Clark maintains the deadpan humor even in Suzanne’s lowest moments.
A subplot about Suzanne agonizing over whether to open the final present her husband left her has a sweet, understated payoff, and there’s a sense that she’s turning a corner, even if just slightly. Like Happy Christmas, White Reindeer ends on Christmas day, with a child’s glee over the holiday perhaps reminding the adults to appreciate and cherish every moment.
Happy Christmas, Christmas, Again, and Lost Holiday are all shot on gorgeous 16mm film, enhancing their sense of warmth and nostalgia, key feelings in all Christmas movies, even the terrifying ones. White Reindeer has a harsher digital look, but it finds its own sense of warmth in other ways, despite the morbid subject matter. The focus on simple human connection may be why mumblecore lends itself so well to Christmas stories, and why these indie filmmakers return to the holidays as subject matter. Mumblecore characters are always on the verge of personal disaster, and at holiday time, that applies to pretty much everyone.