The traditional holiday movie builds towards some climactic takeaway: a troubled character finds new value through the convenience of the Christmas spirit. "Christmas, Again," the bittersweet debut from writer-director Charles Poekel, is a welcome deviation from that tendency.
Starring Kentucker Audley ("Sun Don't Shine") as a downtrodden loner selling Christmas trees in Brooklyn in the aftermath of a breakup, and the fleeting connection he finds with a fellow lost soul, the movie makes no grand gestures but provides a satisfactory arrangement of many small ones.
Shot on grainy 16mm by cinematographer Sean Price Williams ("Listen Up Phillip"), "Christmas, Again" offers the unique pairing of vibrant holiday colors with a foundation of gritty realism built around its impressive lead performance. The character is himself a contrast to his surroundings — a low energy sad sack named, of all things, Noel.
Over the course of its trim 80-minute plot, the subdued Audley imbues his character with gently affecting melancholic depth. A far cry from some of the more energetic personalities he's portrayed in other small-scale narratives, Audley imbues Noel with the characteristics of a frightened lost soul. Working the graveyard shift on a bland lot and regularly berated by his boss for not selling enough trees, Noel spends most of his sleepy routine sitting around and gazing wistfully at photos of his former flame. But his routine gets shaken up during a chance encounter on the street with a mysterious woman named Lydia (Hannah Gross) whom he discovers passed out drunk on a park bench. Dragging her back to his place, he instigates an ambiguous relationship as the similarly low key Lydia regularly pays him visits to discuss her own alienated life and relationship troubles. Though their relationship only develops up to a certain point, it's that very same restraint that allows the story to make a compelling break with convention.
Far from the solution to his troubles, Lydia merely offers the possibility of hope in fresh companionship. Poekel's muted screenplay frames their story in basic terms, avoiding the prospects of a tidy climax and allowing the somber nature of his characters to take the lead. The result is a lightweight but utterly likable riff on urban loneliness that never forces its themes.
Though not outwardly comedic in tone, "Christmas, Again" does offer an amusing critique of holiday cheer. As Noel makes house calls, awkwardly lugging trees into a variety of homes throughout the city, his clients barely notice his presence — but we do. Both pitiable and amusing, he's like the ghost of Christmas present for an age of ambivalence.
Notably, while "Christmas, Again" provides yet another microbudget snapshot of Brooklyn living, it stands apart from countless rambling meditations on urban youth culture. Hailing from upstate and planning to return there after the holiday, Noel is a transitory figure at odds with his surroundings in more ways than one. Lydia follows suit. Though she's given less of a backstory, she offers the semblance of catharsis without becoming a one-note panacea.
The very nature of their kinship implies that not every bored, disgruntled urban young adult falls into the neatly defined conventions of cynicism and privilege. By merely breaking away from those clichés and carving out an charming fresh path, Poekel makes a quietly defiant statement. "Christmas, Again" hints at the arrival of a promising new voice, but doesn't blast it, instead adopting the same gentle allure of the Poekel's forlorn protagonist.
"Christmas, Again" premiered this week at the Locarno Film Festival. It does not currently have distribution.