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Not to take anything away from filmmaker Dana Nachman, but her new documentary certainly benefits from the timing of its release. The film focuses on the 107-year-old Operation Santa program run by the U.S. Postal Service, which incorporates volunteers from around the country to answer children’s letters to Santa Claus and, in many cases, to deliver the gifts they’ve requested. Dear Santa, being showcased at the DOC NYC festival before its theatrical release next month, opens with the cheerful strains of “We Need a Little Christmas,” and boy, do we ever.
Nachman, who specializes in heartwarming true-life tales (her previous efforts are Batkid Begins and Pick of the Litter), has done it again with this film, which features dozens of adorable children and the Postal Service “mail elves” who help make their Christmas wishes come true. One of the latter comments that most of the kids’ letters to Santa are very polite, which feels very reassuring in this decidedly ill-mannered era.
Volunteer “adopter elves” — the documentary ends with a title card featuring a website address where you can learn more, and I wouldn’t be surprised if their ranks swiftly swell — choose which requests they think they can fulfill. The film focuses on several such entreaties, including a little boy who asks for a limo ride for him and his family around New York City and a little girl whose home was destroyed in the devastating fire in Paradise, California. We learn that children’s wishes vary by region: New York kids often request electronics, while Californians want surfboards. The adopter elves read through the seemingly endless number of letters, with often-needed boxes of tissues at the ready.
One volunteer confesses that he was pretty much burned-out, until he read a letter from a child simply asking for love from Santa for being gay. He answered that request with gifts including children’s books about acceptance and LGBQT history. Another segment focuses on a group of schoolchildren, or “mini-elves,” who work to answer the letters of those less fortunate.
The film delivers plenty of Christmas atmosphere via scenes of cities packed with revelers and kids sitting on various Santas’ laps. (The St. Nick wearing Crocs just wasn’t trying hard enough). Those moments now take on an unintended poignancy, considering that this holiday season will be much less joyfully communal. Overall, however, the tone is very playful — sometimes too much so, with the proceedings threatening to veer into Kids Say the Darndest Things territory.
“It’s completely chaotic, and the worse it gets, the better it gets,” says one adopter elf as the holiday looms ever closer. One volunteer embarks on a desperate last-minute effort to raise the funds necessary to fulfill the letters he’s adopted.
The film ends in joyful fashion with a montage of children gleefully receiving their gifts, which include puppies and rabbits. “Should I tell Santa you like him?” a man delivering a bunny asks a child squealing with delight as he holds the placid animal. “I love him,” the child answers. And in case you were wondering, that little boy mentioned earlier does get to treat his single mother and siblings to a limo ride around Manhattan.
Dear Santa delivers a desperately needed dose of holiday cheer during these troubled times that will leave even the most Grinch-like of viewers bathed in their own tears. Considering the mountain of bad press the agency has received lately, the Postal Service would be smart to deliver a free copy to every mailbox.
Venue: DOC NYC
Production company: UM Studios
Distributor: IFC Films
Director-screenwriter: Dana Nachman
Producers: Chelsea Matter, Brendan Gaul, Dana Nachman
Directors of photography: Mike Abela, Martina Radwan
Editor: Jennifer Steinman Sternin
Composer: Dave Tweedie
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