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‘Dear Santa’ Review: A Sweet but Scattered Doc About the Kindness of Strangers

Dana Nachman's inside look at the USPS' Operation Santa program is the rare Christmas film that needed to be more emotionally exploitative.

“Dear Santa”

Did you know that Santa Claus has an official address that’s recognized by the U.S. Postal Service? In order for a dreamy-eyed kid or a desperate adult to reach St. Nick in the run-up to the Christmas season, all they have to do is stick a heartfelt note inside an envelope that’s headed to the right place — 123 Elf Road, North Pole, 88888 — and America’s indefatigable mail carriers will make sure that it gets to the big man’s desk by December 25.

Conceived by Postmaster General Frank Hitchcock in 1912, Operation Santa is a USPS tradition so good and pure that not even Louis DeJoy would dare to dismantle it (though it wouldn’t have been a surprise to see him try). The idea started when Hitchcock authorized postal service employees and civilians alike to open letters that were addressed to the North Pole, and it only grew from there, with charities and corporations getting in on the action and doing their part to make sure that Santa receives (and responds to) some of the many requests that kids have for him each December. In recent years, regular people like you and me have been invited to peruse these letters, “adopt” their local favorites, and anonymously participate in keeping the Christmas spirit alive.

It’s the rare public service program that tax payers are reliably eager to pay for, and it’s brought out America’s inner altruism for more than 100 years no matter how little of it seems to be left in this country. And while the last four years have been some of the grinchiest in memory, participating in the program only seems to have increased during the Trump age, as people are more eager than ever to cleanse themselves from the abject inhumanity of everyday American governance (due to the pandemic, 2020 is the first year where Operation Santa is going nationwide).

In other words, it’s hard to imagine a subject better-suited to some gooey schmaltz that might wet a few cheeks and inspire people to do something positive for a change. And yet, Dana Nachman’s “Dear Santa” does everything in its power to complicate what should’ve been the easiest slam dunk in documentary history. A chintzy and inexplicably scattershot look at the nice people who made Operation Santa possible during the 2019 holiday season, the latest film from the director of “Batkid Begins” struggles to balance sentiment and logistics from the moment it starts, and it’s only during the home stretch — when we finally get to see the look that Operation Santa can put on someone’s face — that the gift of giving shines through.

If those heartwarming, tear-jerking, ugly-cry scenes only make it even more obvious that Nachman’s plastic ornament of a movie would’ve been more potent as a viral YouTube video or a TikTok trend, at least they leave you with a real sense of cheer as the credits roll. And after the year we’ve all just lived through, an exasperating documentary that ends with a mega-dose of good will might just be the most honest and hopeful way of characterizing the Christmas season to come.

The most surprising thing about “Dear Santa” isn’t that it tugs at your heartstrings with the clumsy broadness of a Hallmark card — that’s more of a feature than a bug with a film like this — it’s that Nachman’s doc isn’t emotionally pornographic enough. It has the cuteness factor on lock, though; about that, there can be no doubt. Nachman kicks things off with a racially, ably, and socioeconomically diverse handful of adorable kids talking about their understanding of Santa Claus, setting the stage for an inclusive film that never stays in one place long enough for us to lock in on where we are.

From there, we’re spirited to mail processing centers across the country, as some of the “elves” who work there discuss their involvement in Operation Santa and the sweet, almost sacred joy they find in relaying the letters they receive to “the North Pole.” Proudly billing itself as a “no Christmas spoiler,” Nachman’s film never budges from that kind of enchanted rhetoric, as “Dear Santa” was made with the hope that young kids could watch it and come away from the experience with a greater appreciation for both Santa Claus and the army of workaday strangers who make it possible for him to fulfill their wishes.

It’s an admirable goal, and one that Nachman achieves at the rest of the movie’s expense. Many viewers will be happy enough to make that trade, but a general audience is likely to be frustrated by how much it forces “Dear Santa” to skim over; even the most basic details about how Operation Santa works can be hard to parse when they can only be discussed in code. The essence comes through, of course. We meet a man named Damion, whose rough childhood was brightened by a Christmas miracle and now delights in paying that joy forward.

We meet Janice, Chicago’s lead elf and the warm kind of person you always hope to find in public service. We meet a proud advocate of the LGBTQ+ community who’s ready to hang up his holiday stockings once and for all, only to receive a letter from a young a gay child that reminds him how profound the impact of Operation Santa can be. Each of these thinly sketched subjects are sweet as can be, and the fulfillment they find in helping strangers is contagious in the best of ways. The most potent of their stories even flip the commercialization of Christmas on its ear and encourage us to consider the intergenerational power of conditioned giving; if every kid had a stranger make their dreams come true, maybe they wouldn’t turn into the kind of selfish adults who whine about their tax dollars potentially being used to cancel out someone else’s student debt.

It’s undeniably touching to think that each of us can be a Santa Claus to someone, even if that idea is so guileless that Nachman struggles to grapple with it. It goes without saying that her child subjects deserve all the goodness that’s coming their way — Christopher wants 10 Dutch bunnies, Bryan wants a limo ride around Manhattan, Lorelai just wants to go back home after her house burned down in the Paradise wildfire — and getting to see their wishes come true is as wonderful as you’d imagine for the minute or two that we’re invited to watch it.

Absent proper context, however, there’s a sense of randomness to this tiny sample size, and a feeling that these stories would have been just as impactful without any kind of build-up — and considerably more impactful if Nachman had spent real time fleshing them out. The whole point of “Dear Santa” is to wallop viewers with the sweetness of giving, and yet this scrambling doc pulls its punches even when you’re begging to get the wind knocked out of you. It’s hard to imagine a time when audiences were more in need of absolutely shameless treacle, but anyone who brings those hopes into “Dear Santa” will find them returned to sender.

Grade: C

IFC Films will open “Dear Santa” in theaters and on VOD on Friday, December 4.

As new movies open in theaters during the COVID-19 pandemic, IndieWire will continue to review them whenever possible. We encourage readers to follow the safety precautions provided by CDC and health authorities. Additionally, our coverage will provide alternative viewing options whenever they are available.

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