Sundance 2014: The dilemmas of having it all in ‘Happy Christmas’
Glenn Close from the movie “Low Down.”(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)
Actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, with the film “Frank.”(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)
PARK CITY, Utah -- In a movie also starring Anna Kendrick, Lena Dunham, Melanie Lynskey and Mark Webber, the real scene-stealer is Jude Swanberg, the young son of filmmaker Joe Swanberg.
At the world premiere of Papa Swanberg’s new “Happy Christmas” at Park City’s Library Theater on Sunday evening -- part of the Sundance Festival’s U.S. Dramatic Competition -- the crowd was won over by Jude’s performance in the film, shot when he was 2, but was really taken from the moment he ran to the front of the theater to be scooped up in his father’s arms for a post-screening Q&A.
Joe Swanberg introduced the screening with “I’m not going to really say anything about the movie because this is the only chance any of us are ever going to have to watch it without any idea of what it is. After this, you guys are going to tweet about it and stuff, and people are going to have expectations and they’re going to know about the plot. We get to see this fresh right now.”
Following last year’s “Drinking Buddies,” which found Swanberg melding his improvisational approach to a more structured storytelling and use of more recognizable stars, “Happy Christmas” finds him utilizing more or less the same approach.
Working from roughly a 12-page outline, the actors had a sense of the story and the purpose of each scene, but would then collaborate with Swanberg and cinematographer Ben Richardson (who shot “Drinking Buddies” as well as Sundance breakout “Beasts of the Southern Wild”) to capture the scenes.
Swanberg here also furthers his development into a filmmaker of nimble nuance and a real sensitivity to his performers, in particular the actresses. A question from the audience specifically asked about the astonishing scene in which Dunham, Lynskey and Kendrick talk over drinks about the challenges of “having it all” and whether hitting the pause button on a career to raise a family is or is not a feminist thing to do.
Getting up for a Q&A with Lynskey, Weber, Kendrick and his son, Joe Swanberg noted that when he and his wife Kris, who was standing in the wings just a few paces away, had Jude they had to make hard decisions as to who would be the breadwinner and who would take care of their child and what that subsequently did for his wife’s sense of personal identity to suddenly find herself a stay-at-home mom.
“We don’t see it in movies and it is something that I wanted to talk about and needs to be talked about, and so it was a big impetus for making the movie in the first place,” Swanberg said.
Lynskey, wearing the same heavy winter coat as she was in the movie, added, “Women of my generation, a lot of us have grown up as self-identified feminists from a really young age and a lot of my friends have had kids and gone through this thing of not being sure what their identity is and it being a challenge to keep in line with beliefs they’ve had about what they wanted from their life and their instincts now that they have a family.”
The film also captures a nice dynamic between Lynskey and Kendrick as sisters-in-law who are starting to feel more like family to one another. Kendrick’s role is something of a changeup for her, as her character gets pass-out drunk, smokes pot, nearly sets a house on fire and makes a startlingly direct come-on to Mark Webber’s character that will have young men the world over slapping their foreheads in disbelief.
And as for Jude, his youngest star, Swanberg noted, “We caught him at a really nice time, when he was old enough to be independent and do some things but the word ‘no’ hadn’t really fully entered his vocabulary. He was just hangin’ out.”
Shooting on film, with a bare-bones crew of five, meant that no one got many takes to get it right, not even young Jude, he said.
“Jude had to nail it,” Swanberg said. “And he really is kind of a whiz at continuity. ... He’s just a ham. He wants to laugh the same way anybody wants to laugh.”
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