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Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Christmas 2017: December 11

White Reindeer (2013)

Common knowledge would have it that suicide rates go around the holidays. This is not true but the irony is still irresistible for some. That what is supposed to be the happiest time of the year makes some people miserable. This has led to an interesting genre of depressing Christmas media. There's sad holiday songs, downbeat December books, and, of course, miserablist Christmas movies. I feel this provides a much-needed course correction, counteracting the omni-present holiday cheer around the end of the year. Indie filmmakers have been happy to cater to this demand. I've covered a few of these anti-cheer flicks before and another title I've been hearing about a lot lately is “White Reindeer.” Onto the December watchlist it went.

Suzanne Barrington seemingly has an ideal life. She's a successful real estate agent and is married to Jeff, a popular local weatherman. The two love each other, frequently having enthusiastic sex. The couple plans on spending Christmas, just a few weeks away, in Hawaii. This all comes crashing down when Suzanne comes home to discover her husband, dead on their living room floor. He was murdered during a robbery. Soon afterwards, Suzanne learns her late husband had an affair with a stripper. The two strike up an odd friendship as Suzanne attempts to navigate her grief and survive the holiday season.

Going into “White Reindeer,” I was expecting some mumblecore cringe-comedy. Joe Swansberg's in it, after all. It becomes clear early on that director/writer/editor Zach Clark doesn't employ the partially improvised format, as his film is concisely written and edited. The editing is especially strong during a dance sequence. However, “White Reindeer” does go for cringes in an interesting way. Jeff and Suzanne is introduced having rowdy sex in their kitchen. She is frequently seen sitting on the toilet. She vomits and farts. Moreover, the character are often put in uncomfortable situations. Suzanne's nice neighbors are interrupted while setting up a sex swing. This proceeds a long sequence set at an orgy, which is more awkward than sexy. The editing, which frequently drops the viewer into these uneasy moments, emphasizes the feeling that the protagonist is no longer comfortable in her own skin.

More than anything else, “White Reindeer” is about the odd ways humans react to grief. The film acknowledges grief as something that isn't a clean process. Such as the scene where Suzanne discovers her husband's taste in pornography. This leads to Suzanne attempting to drown her sorrows in physical sensation. She drinks, does drugs, and parties with her new stripper friend. When that doesn't work, she attends her neighbor's sex party, finding this stimuli ultimately unsatisfying as well. She spends hundreds on Christmas decorations, turning her house into the holiest jolliest building on the block. She starts to live off candy canes and eggnog. She briefly becomes a vegetarian, haunted by images of her husband's blown open head. None of these actions provide solace. “White Reindeer” presents grieving as a long, difficult situation without easy answers or clean payoffs.

Centering the film is a phenomenal lead performance. Anna Margaret Hollyman, an actress with few other big credits to her name, plays Suzanne. Hollyman is astonishingly well controlled. She keeps most of Suzanne's storming emotions under the surface, at least until it inevitably bubbles over in the harshest ways. It's a difficult part, running through most every emotional extreme you can think of, but Hollyman does a fantastic job. She never hits a wrong note or overdoes it. The supporting cast is strong too, as Laura Lemar-Goldsborough also does well as Fantasia, the stripper. This is her only on-screen credit so far, sad to say.

“White Reindeer” will obviously not be for everyone. As a comedy, the film's jokes are few and far between. A sudden game of Rock Band or an awkward encounter in the strip club's dressing room are the only moments that really made me laugh. The story's visual symbolism, like Suzanne's reoccuring vision of a fashion model, don't really pay off. The conclusion is sudden and somewhat frustrating, intentionally leaving a few plot points unresolved. Despite these issues, I found “White Reindeer” a rewarding experience. And there's certainly few other films out there that grapple with the meaning of the holiday the way this one does. [7/10]

The Small One (1978)

When I did my Don Bluth retrospective a few years back, one thing became apparent. The animation director has made some awful movies but, when he was on his game, the results were frequently fantastic. Bluth's first directorial credit was on an animated short, “The Small One,” made by Disney in 1978. I've always been curious about the short and decided this December was the one I watched it. The plot, set in the Middle East many years ago, concerns a father and son. The boy is especially attached to an old donkey he calls Small One. The father informs the boy that it costs more to feed the donkey than they make from him, telling the boy to sell the animal at market. The last minute plot point that makes this a Christmas movie should be fairly easy to guess, given the setting and time period.

Even Bluth's worst movies – and he made some stinkers – were usually beautifully animated. It's hard to know how personally satisfied the director was with “The Small One,” as he left the studio not long after it came out. “The Small One” isn't up to the standards of Bluth's feature films but it still looks lovely. It's hard to undersell the beauty of painted backgrounds or the vividness of detailed character animation like this. The story is awfully cute. Considering it revolves around the relationship between a young boy and an adorable donkey, it would be hard for it not to be cute. The short's moral – that even the smallest of weakest of us can serve the greatest purpose – is nice, even if the context of these events are easy to guess

“The Small One” is effective at what it does, though I wish the music was a little better. The title song, and the songs the boy sings to his donkey, are nice enough. However, the songs the various bankers and vendors in the marketplace sing range from forgettable to annoying. The short isn't quite a half-hour long but, with those songs cut, could've easily run shorter. It's a fairly pleasant take on the beginnings of the Christmas story, though Bluth's later work would easily eclipse it. [7/10]

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