Cinema Review: Christmas, Again | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Sunday, November 29th, 2020  

Christmas, Again

Studio: Factory 25
Directed by Charles Poekel

Dec 09, 2015 Web Exclusive
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Christmas, Again, the debut feature from director Charles Poekel, was purportedly inspired by the filmmaker’s own experiences as a Christmas tree salesman. A title card informs us that the film takes place “sometime fairly recently in New York City.” That oddly worded bit of context, coupled with Christmas Again’s gorgeously mottled Super 16mm cinematography, lends the film a half-awake idiosyncrasy, just a few degrees removed from naturalism. Furthering the slight feeling of dislocation is the subdued, tinny soundtrack, which at times seems to evoke a New York City from a century or so prior.

The film’s near-ambient narrative is held together by the central performance of Kentucker Audley as Noel, an Upstate New Yorker who spends each December living out of a trailer, hawking Christmas trees to Brooklynites. Audley is playing a man who is playing at being a closed book. His Noel is an assemblage of darting glances, poor eye contact, and monosyllabic responses, and it’s painfully clear that he’s reeling from a recent breakup which he refuses to address with any clarity; Audley’s performance is carefully calibrated, but it never comes off as calculated or overly mannered.

Noel’s rather unconvincing stoicism is muddled by a chance encounter with Lydia (Hannah Gross), a young woman who’s all too eager to fill up Noel’s blank spaces with her own overflow of misplaced feelings. It’s to Gross’s credit that her character comes off as intelligently scatterbrained and entirely sympathetic in her flailing attempts to connect with Noel.

Poekel's choice of offscreen collaborators is also key to the success of Christmas, Again. Particularly integral to the film's mood is the cinematography of Sean Price Williams, a mainstay of the modern micro-budget art film, perhaps best known for his work with Alex Ross Perry. Unyoked to Perry's demanding virtuosity, Williams is free to explore a more fluid style, marked by bleary close-ups bathed in that occasionally border on abstraction. When Williams’ handheld camera isn't searching Noel's face for the answers, it tends to rummage through the cramped spaces of his trailer, or linger moodily on the dim glow of Christmas lights (wide shots are few and far between).

Also of importance is the work of editor Robert Greene (another regular co-conspirator of Perry's), who teases a real rhythm out of Noel's interactions with customers and co-workers. In conversation after conversation, Noel is all too willing to fall back on the basic jargon of his trade, consistently sidestepping any kind of intimacy. When he's caught off guard by an unexpectedly personal question or show of generosity, we can practically see the lump forming in his throat.

That Noel begins to flub his well-trodden salesman's spiel one of the clearest signs of his emotional wear. The latent humor in this idea isn't lost on Poekel, who is creating a portrait of a decidedly blue Christmas, not a black one. The filmmaker avoids standard navel-gazing by observing his characters at a slight distance, viewing them with both warmth and a dash of irony. The director’s comic sensibility is so mutedly deadpan, you sometimes wonder if you're imagining it entirely.

In a fitting expression of Noel's lack of synchronicity with his surroundings, his sole breakdown comes immediately after the film's funniest scene, in which he delivers a tree to the apartment of a blissed-out couple that barely notices his presence (one half of which is played by Real Estate's Martin Courtney, indie rock's current chronicler of suburban domesticity). When Noel’s tears finally come as he walks alone in the violet light of evening, the moment is all the more effective because we’ve seen him snuff out and choke down his dejection in prior scenes.

Poekel is closely attuned to the indignities suffered by his characters, the ripple effect of their mild kindnesses, and the tensions and disappointments that result from their emotional reticence. But his small-scale triumph is that the film’s vignettes casually coalesce into a portrait of that peculiar loneliness that quietly lurks year-round in nondescript corners of urban experience, only to come suddenly into focus under the glow of holiday lights.

www.factorytwentyfive.com/christmas-again

Author rating: 7/10

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Average reader rating: 10/10



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