Advertisement

KILLINGS, daily columns and blog —

2014 columns, Film

Joe Swanberg’s Real Women

by Rochelle Siemienowicz , July 28, 20142 Comments

Happy Christmas

 

Joe Swanberg’s women feel real. For example, they like to drink. Often to excess. The low-budget auteur’s critically lauded 2013 film Drinking Buddies was even set in a boutique brewery, where the wild and flirtatious manager, Kate (Olivia Wilde), drank her male workmates under the table before selecting one of them to take home to bed. A refreshing and original study in female arrested development, Kate was sexy, crass and fun, but also manipulative, spoilt and immature. She was a messy modern woman who felt so familiar; yet here was a character we’d never seen portrayed before with quite such warmth and nuance.

Now with his latest film, Happy Christmas, Swanberg (Hannah Takes the Stairs, LOL, Marriage Material) has given us a couple of other totally relatable modern women. They’re a pleasure to watch, largely because they’re so familiar in life and so rarely depicted on screen. Kelly (the wonderful New Zealand actress Melanie Lynskey, who keeps her own accent) is a one-time-novelist turned stay-at-home mother to an adorable two-year-old son. (The baby is played by Jude Swanberg, the real life son of the filmmaker, and without a doubt the most entertaining tot to ever appear on film. Honestly, he’s a star!)

Kelly is married to Jeff (Swanberg himself), a filmmaker who’s preoccupied with supporting the family. When Jeff’s volatile and irresponsible younger sister, Jenny (Anna Kendrick), breaks up with her boyfriend, she moves into the couple’s tiki-themed Chicago basement and proceeds to cause chaos. On her first night in town, Jenny goes out to a party with an old friend, Carson (Lena Dunham), and gets so passed-out drunk she has to be carried home. Then there’s the dope-smoking, the fling she starts up with the family’s babysitter-cum-drug dealer (Mark Webber), and the way she sets off the fire alarm in the middle of the night.

What really gives the story its third dimension, however, is the way the young screw-up brings vitality and companionship to the frustrated housewife. In one of the film’s most beautiful scenes, Jenny and her friend Carson are drinking and bitching in the basement. Kelly comes down ready to get angry, but instead she agrees to join them for a drink. As the younger women chew on their cocktail umbrellas, they compliment Kelly on her ‘I haven’t even had a shower’ prettiness, asking her about her former writing career. She starts to blossom, and with half a beer’s bravado, acknowledges her ambivalence about motherhood and the way she yearns for time to write. The three women eventually workshop the plot for a commercial erotic novel. (You must stay through the final credits to hear them hilariously trying out different words for male and female genitalia.)

A prolific lo-fi micro-budget filmmaker with more than 15 features under his belt (and he’s only 33), Swanberg’s improvisional methods draw heavily from life, allowing the actors to bring their own dialogue into a set of broad scenarios, with themes usually centring around sex, relationships, technology and fear of commitment.  (He’s often spoken about as a key member in the unofficial ‘mumblecore’ movement of Indie American cinema, alongside Andrew Bujalski and the Duplass brothers.)

The setting in Happy Christmas is Swanberg’s real life Chicago house, a kitsch 1970s fantasy, complete with Hawaii-themed basement. The retro look is completed by grainy 16mm film and a Dylan-esque score, but the themes are thoroughly modern. Swanberg’s own marriage to fellow filmmaker Kris Williams, with her artistic identity crisis around motherhood, provided the original idea.

In the press notes, Swanberg says he wanted to talk about ‘what it’s like for mothers who are artists, who end up becoming stay-at-home moms instead of being able to practice their art.  What feminist issues does that raise? What are the upsides and drawbacks to that?’ In another interview, this time with the Huffington Post, Swanberg asks, ‘Isn’t it shocking that in 2014…nobody can remember ever seeing a mom talk about the frustrations and pleasures of having a kid and being a mom?’ It’s not that we’ve never seen it before on screen. But it’s still rare to see it done so naturalistically and without hysteria. That’s just one of the reasons why Swanberg’s real women feel like such a relief.

 

Happy Christmas is currently available on VOD platforms such as iTunes (Apple TV) and Netflix. The film will also screen at the Melbourne International Film Festival on 6 and 10 August, with Joe Swanberg in attendance as a guest of the festival and a panellist in the session: Talking Pictures: Blue Movies – Sex and Sexuality.

Rochelle Siemienowicz is a Melbourne-based film journalist, reviewer and editor. 

ACO logo




  • Scarlett Harris

    Dammit, now I want to see this at MIFF but it’s on past my bedtime!

  • Glenn Dunks

    The film is so so good. Joe Swanberg is so so good.

loitering-cover-cmyk-570

Sam van Zweden

The Writer at the Centre of the Essay: Charles D’Ambrosio’s Loitering

Loitering is Charles D’Ambrosio’s quietly brave collection of experimental essays. It doesn’t announce itself noisily, but associations slide sideways through the essays in unexpected ways. This collection is lyric in both senses – freely associative and loose, it borrows from the world, trying meaning on for size, producing metaphors and connections wherever it sees fit. Read more »

discworld

Elizabeth Flux

Footnote to a life: How Terry Pratchett kept me from going postal

If imitation truly is the sincerest form of flattery, then teenage me would have been the steamroller to Terry Pratchett’s somewhat plagiarised tarmac. In the ten years since I first picked up The Fifth Elephant, my work has been littered with Pratchettisms to varying degrees. Read more »

Patricia-Highsmith2

James Tierney

The Necessary Paradoxes of Patricia Highsmith

A highly regarded author of complex psychological thrillers, including The Talented Mr Ripley and Strangers on a Train, Patricia Highsmith’s fiction comes freighted with a heady mix of cross-purposes and intimate alienations. Read more »

Rebecca Shaw

TERF War: Transphobia in the LGBTQI community

I started to realise that I was ‘not like other girls’ about the time I hit puberty. From that point on I underwent an extensive and daunting process to emerge from my closeted cocoon into the beautiful lesbian butterfly I am today. An important part of that development was realising – mostly via the Internet (or very occasionally through people I met in real life) – that there were people like me all over the world. Read more »

9807778273_afe6ec792d_z

Rebecca Shaw

Breaking the Celluloid Ceiling

We are still at a point where far less than half the movies we see have a clear female protagonist, even though women are half of the population. If women as an ENTITY are not properly represented, their stories not told, what chance then do women of colour have? Read more »

article-2301242-18FA52E4000005DC-314_470x763

Rebecca Shaw

An Inconvenient Truth: Social stigma and menstruation

If you have heard of menstruation, you would know that it is an essential process in a little tiny thing called the EXISTENCE AND CONTINUATION OF HUMAN LIFE, and it is something that most (not all) women experience for about five days every month for a large part of their lives. It is a topic (besides shopping, lol) that women think about frequently. Read more »

flock_roof

Anwen Crawford

Don’t be Sheepish: Why Ewe Should See Shaun the Sheep Movie

Shaun the Sheep Movie is the latest feature-length production from Aardman Animations (the folk who brought us Chicken Run), and it is a delight. Borrow a young relative for cover if you must, but believe me, you are not too cool for a kid’s movie when it’s this much fun. Read more »

9331818982_322b389ff2_z

Annabel Brady-Brown

The blue pill or the red pill? In defence of highbrow film

Cinema is a powerful medium. Going to the movies, be it a Lav Diaz epic or a Michael Bay blockbuster, is an act of submission. You hand over $15 and the whole mash of your brain/senses/heart/dreams for ninety minutes. Read more »

girlwalkshomealoneatnight

Anwen Crawford

Bad Cities

A Most Violent Year has an atmosphere of all-pervading dread, like a film noir, as if the polluted air of New York itself was causing people to act against their better intentions. Even more haunting and more noir is A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, a memorably audacious debut feature from American-Iranian director Ana Lily Amirpour. Read more »

empire-tv-review-fox

Anwen Crawford

Rise of an Empire

Watching Empire, I wondered why there haven’t been more television shows about record labels, the music industry being the cesspit of venality that it is. Forget TV dramas about police departments and hospital wards – a show about a record label comes with all that conflict, plus outfits, plus songs. Read more »

video-undefined-22D54AFA00000578-784_636x358

Matilda Dixon-Smith

Insufferable assholes and grown up Girls

Yes, our girls are growing, learning, discovering. But all they’re really discovering is how toxic and unheroic they are, and how to use that to their advantage. They’re not going to grow out of their asshole tendencies, because they are actually assholes. Read more »

agent-carter-7683

Danielle Binks

Agent Carter and the future of the female superhero

Agent Carter has been described ‘a Triumph for Women, Marvel and TV,’ and heralded as an important new chapter in comics culture. If this supposedly groundbreaking new show fails, does it spell doom for the future of female-led superhero franchises? Read more »

jakobson0052

Katie Williams

Storytelling vs. interactivity: What makes a highbrow game?

What makes a game ‘highbrow’? We don’t have solid criteria for deciding conclusively which games are masterpieces, and which are just dumb, explosive fun. Read more »

ss_f6a450fbf737eb04c58b973f72e8817bb2b50285.600x338

Katie Williams

Brain Candy: Are game jams diluting the potential of video games?

In a world where YouTube gameplay videos narrated by hollering amateurs hold as much clout – if not more – than professional game critics, I worry that developers may be swayed to choose an easier, unimaginative, and more vacuous path to success. Read more »

cher_horowitz_closet-010_2

Katie Williams

Fashion Forward: How hidden algorithms are dressing up technology

Though we increasingly rely on technology to simplify our lives, we still want to believe that behind the scenes is a happy, human face, rather than an impassive machine that does the dirty work for us. Read more »

16475519129_bb489cf4ce_o

Jane Howard

Creative Space: The secret power of community theatres

Theatre is inextricably tied to space, and the best theatre spaces become more than buildings. They become communities of like-minded people: of artists and of audience members, intermingling their ideas and their lives. Read more »

Tessa Waters stars in Womanz

Jane Howard

Fringe Feminism: Women, comedy and performance art

Taken together, the work of these female comics and performers loudly proclaims that their ideas about gender, femininity, performance and comedy are not diametrically opposed. It is because of their performance backgrounds that their shows are hilarious, not in spite of them. Read more »

Before Us_3

Jane Howard

Stuart Bowden’s Unfamiliar, Universal Worlds

It’s hard to classify the work of Stuart Bowden. His one-person storytelling theatre works are at once hilarious and melancholy. They exist in a particular space of fringe theatre: intricately crafted stories built for small rooms & small audiences, they lift and rise that audience, gathering us all up in the magic of stories & the closeness they can breed. Read more »