'Christmas, Again': Locarno Review
Locarno Film Festival (Competition)
Kentucker Audley, Hannah Gross
Charles Poekel's intimate, pine-scented debut feature looks at a brokenhearted Christmas-tree seller in New York, played by Kentucker Audley
A brokenhearted, nighttime Christmas-tree salesman in the Big Apple is all set for a couple of pretty silent nights in Christmas, Again, the intimate debut feature of writer-director Charles Poekel. A low-key mixture of American indie tropes and Christmas chestnuts, this Locarno world premiere benefits from the surly charms of Kentucker Audley’s reserved but nonetheless appealing performance and could interest VOD and day-and-date specialists looking for holiday-themed art house titles.
The story takes place "sometime fairly recently," at a street corner in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where the auspiciously named Noel (Audley) works the nightshift at a makeshift Christmas-tree stand that’s open 24/7 for most of December. As slowly emerges from snippets of conversations, a lot has recently changed for Noel, for whom this is the fifth year on the job. This time around, he’s decided to work nights, most likely as a result of his break-up with his girlfriend, Mary-Ann, "that nice girl from last year" that clients rather unfortunately keep asking him about.
The film consists mainly of Noel’s countless short exchanges with his co-workers and a series of customers, who range from kind to disinterested, funny to bizarre (one of them actually lands a punch on Noel’s face). As per the press kit, most of these encounters were inspired by the director’s own interactions with clients as a Christmas-tree peddler, a job Poekel started with the idea of funneling both his experiences and the money earned into his feature debut.
Audiences thus slowly get to know Noel, who’s clearly become a man of few words since the breakup and who seems to just blindly forge ahead, as if on autopilot. But this being a Christmas movie, a spark of good tidings and cheer can be found on a nearby park bench, where Noel finds Lydia (Canadian actress Hannah Gross),who’s so wasted she hasn’t noticed a homeless man has taken her mobile phone.
Where all this is headed can’t exactly be called shocking, though Noel and Lydia nicely underplay their growing rapport and there’s indeed a sense that the withdrawn Noel slowly melts in the presence of this girl who — what else? — bakes him a cake to thank him for taking care of her. Cue the Christmas songs about cold winter nights and heart-warming occurrences, though thankfully Poekel's song choice is a little more offbeat and eclectic than usual for holiday films.
Audley (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints), in practically every frame of the film, has to carry this feather-light narrative on his shoulders and does so with ease. His Noel seems to do very little and isn’t particularly warm or sympathetic, yet there’s something fascinating about simply watching him getting on with the business of selling trees, which, much like his funk, is clearly a seasonal thing. Opposite him, Gross (I Used to Be Darker) is an affable presence, though her character is more of a vision than anything resembling a girl with an actual personality.
Though the budget was clearly tiny, DP Sean Price Williams (The Color Wheel, Listen Up Philip) did shoot the film on 16 mm, which lends the cinematography a pleasant, old-school feeling, with the grain functioning as a kind of gauze and the initial restlessness of Williams' camera slowly steadying as Noel finds his bearings.
Also of particular note is the enormous, hooded green winter coat that Lydia wears, which in some shots makes her look like someone out of a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale even if the garment always remains credible as the kind of thing a Brooklyn hipster would fish out of a well-stocked second-hand store.
Production company: Auke Bay Conifers Corp
Cast: Kentucker Audley, Hannah Gross, Jason Shelton, Oona Roche
Writer-director-producer: Charles Poekel
Executive producer: William Poekel
Co-producer: Clare Paterson
Director of photography: Sean Price Williams
Production designer: Trevor Petersen
Editor: Robert Greene
No rating, 80 minutes