For all the things Anna Kendrick plays in "Happy Christmas," truly happy is not one of them.
Kendrick's Jenny is a needy younger sister, a trying sister-in-law, an unreliable aunt, a miserable ex and a depressed drunk. She's also someone the actress makes you inclined to care about in times of trouble. Though improvisational auteur Joe Swanberg's latest relationship drama is liberally spiked with comedy, these are definitely troubled times.
The film opens a few days before Christmas with Jenny's arrival in Chicago. Fresh off a breakup, packing lots of emotional baggage, she's planning to crash for a bit with older brother Jeff (Swanberg himself), his wife Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) and their 2-year-old, played by the director's own budding scene-stealer, Jude.
Crash is the operative word in "Christmas."
After a little bit of family reconnecting, including a tour of the Tiki bar-themed basement where she'll be staying, Jenny's off with a college friend, Carson (Lena Dunham), for a holiday party. It ends with a call to Jeff in the wee hours to come pick up his wasted sister.
Alcohol is a familiar social lubricant in Swanberg films. It was very effective in dealing with commitment issues in last year's "Drinking Buddies," which starred Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson as the buddies, Ron Livingston and Kendrick as their significant others.
Alcohol carries an even heavier load in "Christmas," as the filmmaker examines ways in which getting older and more responsible changes the sibling dynamic, especially when the younger half of the equation is not there yet. Kendrick's comedy always carries emotional injuries — as an efficiency expert opposite George Clooney in "Up in the Air," an insecure freshman in "Pitch Perfect." She definitely lets you feel Jenny's pain.
But this is not just Jenny's story. "Christmas" is also interested in what motherhood does to aspiring female artists. In this case, Lynskey's Kelly is a minor novelist now preoccupied with the demands of raising Jude. The New Zealand actress, so good at self-deprecating seriousness, uses that strength to make that tug between adorable 2-year-old and desire to start work again a visible ache.
Themes of female empowerment amid insecurities and indecision pile up like Christmas presents under the tree. Jeff, supportive and uncertain in the face of it, like the rest of the men in the movie, is a secondary player.
In addition to driving the film, the turmoil helps cover some of the cracks left by the rawness of improv. It's not that there is no structure to Swanberg's work, there is. He outlines the story and the scenarios the actors will move through. But the words and the emotions are the actors' own — surfacing on the day they are shooting.
"Beasts of the Southern Wild" director of photography Ben Richardson shoulders the camera and follows them with a keen eye. Most of the film unfolds in Swanberg's real Chicago home, which came with the Tiki bar basement just begging to be used in a film.
At its best, the inherent looseness makes room for a little "Christmas" serendipity. Completely unscripted is Jude, presented with a pile of Cheerios, stuffing a handful in his mouth with the charm only a toddler could pull off.
In other scenes, the technique exposes real truths. A compelling one comes when brother and sister see each other for the first time since the party retrieval. Jeff makes his way down to the basement to have "the talk," a brother clearly uncomfortable being pushed into this particular parenting role.
Jenny, attention trained on her laptop, is avoiding eye contact and conversation. Jeff surveys the scene, sits, contemplates. After a long silence, he glances at the remnants of her half-eaten lunch. "You finished with that?" Those words say everything that is needed.
"Christmas" keeps circling around the elephant in the room, the interdependence and co-dependence that exist within families. At times it's exactly the right tone. At others it keeps the film from hitting some notes more seriously when it should.
All in all, "Happy Christmas" is a good deal like cartoon Charlie Brown's classic tree — scraggly, plenty of heart and much to enjoy, especially if you prefer your presents homemade.
MPAA rating: R for language, drug use and some sexual content
Running time: 1 hour, 18 minutes
Playing: At Landmark Nuart Theatre, West Los AngelesCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times