Monday, May 19, 2014

Movie Review: White Reindeer

White Reindeer
Directed by: Zach Clark.   
Written by: Zach Clark.
Starring: Anna Margaret Hollyman (Suzanne Barrington), Laura Lemar-Goldsborough (Fantasia), Lydia Hyslop (Patti), Joe Swanberg (George), Chris Doubek (Detective Ross), Marissa Molnar (Latifa), Fernanda Tapia (Fresca), Nathan Williams (Jeff Barrington), Yvonne Erickson (Mrs. Boxter - Suzanne's Mother), Leo Erickson (Mr. Boxter - Suzanne's Father). 

Christmas is supposed to be the happiest time of the year – but we all know that isn’t precisely true for many people. Most Christmas movies rub our noses in the perfect family holidays that we have no chance of ever replicating in our own lives. The ones that don’t do that aggressively go the other way – a film like Bad Santa which is just about the funniest Christmas movie ever made is also the least family friendly one I can recall. Yet while we have had quite a few of both of those kinds of films over the years, I’m nor sure I’ve ever quite seen a Christmas movie like White Reindeer – which is pretty much depressing from beginning to end, yet somehow avoids the trap of just being depressing for depressing sake. It isn’t great movie, but it’s a hell of an effort from writer-director Zach Clark.

Anna Margaret Hollyman stars as Suzanne – a happy realtor, with a seemingly perfect husband and a life that is about to take off. Her husband, a local weather man, has been offered a job in Hawaii – and the couple prepares for one final Christmas at home in Vermont. Then Suzanne comes home one day to find her husband’s head has been bashed in during a robbery. Now she’s a young widow – her employer tells her to take a few months off, and her husband’s best friend uses the opportunity of her husband’s funeral to relieve himself of the guilt of admitting that her husband had had an affair with a stripper a few months earlier. Suzanne’s life, which seemed so perfect, is now in the crapper – and she has no way to pull herself out of it.

All of this probably makes White Reindeer sound like a depressing film. To a certain extent it is. But a few things keep the film from being just a parade of miserablism. The first thin is the wonderful lead performance by Anna Margaret Hollyman. It is a subtle performance – her Suzanne never truly breaks down in histrionics like we expect her to – there is very little crying or raging in the film. Inside, hers is a slow implosion as she tries to distract herself from how miserable her life has become. At first, it’s spending too much money on clothes and Christmas decorations. Then she decides to track down the stripper his husband had an affair with. This is Fantasia (Laura Lemar-Goldsborough) who is not quite the hateful slut we expect her to be. She is fairly smart – a young woman trying hard to raise her daughter, and take care of her aging mother. Her first interaction with Suzanne doesn’t go like we expect it to – there is no yelling or screaming, accusations or tearful apologies. Instead the two women simply acknowledge each other – they share a connection because they both loved Suzanne’s husband, and now he’s gone. The two even become friends – sort of. Suzanne is a little older, and gets a little fed up with Fantasia and her friends at times, but mainly they find a deeper connection than we thought possible. Even this newfound friendship isn’t enough to save Suzanne however – who will degrade herself at a party hosted by mumblecore stalwart Joe Swanberg and his wife. I’m not quite sure I bought this scene, but it was necessary to show just how far Suzanne has fallen.

I admired much of White Reindeer, even if at times it strains for credibility. Writer-director Zach Clark has talent. I did not see his previous films, but on the basis of White Reindeer, I will be sure to keep an eye out for his next one. The film never quite did what I expected it to – it kept me guessing, and Hollyman's excellent performance kept the film grounded no matter what was going in the movie. The final shot in the movie is the most hopeful one – and shows that no matter how hard you try, you cannot make a completely depressing Christmas movie.

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