'Christmas Again' a subtle film with an air of realism

Sunday, December 13, 2015 - 6:00pm
Christmas movies often tend to rely on big, over-the-top moments of in-your-face festivity to inspire Christmas cheer. But what’s refreshing about “Christmas, Again,” though, is that it brings a low-key emotional intimacy to the holiday.
 
Kentucker Audley (“Queen of Earth”) stars as Noel, a man who spends his nights working as a Christmas tree salesman and sleeps his days away in a cramped trailer. One night, Noel finds a woman named Lydia (Hannah Gross, “Take What You Can Carry”) passed out in the park and carries her back to the warmth of his trailer so she doesn’t freeze. The two later tentatively form a friendship.
 
This is the ostensible inciting incident of the film, but Lydia only actually appears in a few scenes. Most of the film is a bare-bones character study of Noel. He’s going through a break-up, but we never learn much about the details of his relationship or his life in general. Audley’s performance relies on the sheer amount of time we spend watching his face in close-up, noticing the subtleties of his expressions as he reacts to customers and tries in vain to ignore the sound of outside noise so he can fall asleep. Audley does so much with so few words and so few big emotional beats to play.
 
In fact, the only real problem with “Christmas, Again” is that it occasionally holds back too much and threatens to become boring in its middle section. The film repeats the same pattern: Noel wakes up, exchanges a few words with day salesman Nick (Jason Shelton, “We Need to Talk About Kevin”) and spends a solitary night selling trees, with very little meaningful dialogue. It’s a slight film very much built on mood, focused to a fault on the lonely mundanity of Noel’s life.
 
Still, for patient viewers, it’s an ultimately rewarding experience. Writer-director Charles Poekel, who was a Christmas tree salesman himself, has an eye for small details in human expression. The customers feel surprisingly real, conveyed by small nuances of expression and dialogue, like when one customer waits for his wife to receive a picture and says to her over a Bluetooth, “Sure. I love your tortellini. What about that tuna thingy? All right.” The series of customers approaching Noel and asking questions about trees aren’t cartoonish plot devices for wacky hijinks. They feel like real people, with unique neuroses and irritating qualities.
 
This eye for details helps create an atmosphere of realism, but it’s also critical to making the emotions of the film land. In Noel’s most frustrated moments at work, his panting is loud and suffocating, his sawing of the trees labored and relentless. One small but particularly vexing moment happens when Noel tries to pull a big tree loose from the pile, but it keeps pulling another tree with it. Noel attempts to separate them and stand the smaller tree up on its own, but it keeps being yanked along. It’s impossible not to feel Noel’s misery.
 
The mundane yet achingly real feeling of Noel’s stress and unhappiness makes the film’s rare moments of joy even more potent. Toward the end, Noel brings Lydia along to deliver some trees on Christmas Eve, and it’s fun to see them venturing away from the trailer, where almost every other scene is set. When Noel jokes playfully with some little kids asking him about Santa Claus, his laugh is almost jarring. As Noel and Lydia sit together, huddled in the warmth of a trailer, there’s a gentle intimacy present. 
 
Most Christmas movies forgo quiet peace in favor of bombastic musical numbers and dramatic romantic gestures. “Christmas, Again,” by contrast, is understated and patient. Even with the melancholic ambiguous ending, the movie captures the muted contentment of the holiday. It’s not the most dramatic Christmas film, but it might be the most real.