An unorthodox, somewhat listless take on the Christmas movie.
The title Christmas, Again says it all, really. In Charles Poekel’s directorial debut, Christmas is less of a joyous holiday and more of a hurdle to jump over. At least that’s what it’s like for Noel (Kentucker Audley), a Christmas tree salesman in New York City working the night shift. Poekel isn’t cheery or sentimental in his approach, but he also doesn’t make his film an exercise in misery. With a low-key, melancholy tone throughout, Christmas, Again pleasantly goes against expectations, winding up as a minor, well-observed character study.
Poekel, who also wrote and produced, actually spent several years working the same dead-end job as Noel, living in a trailer during the Christmas season in the middle of New York. Poekel’s own experiences add an autobiographical element to the film, giving it a specificity that picks up the narrative slack. Most of Christmas, Again unfolds with very little plot, opting to follow Noel around as he sells trees, goes swimming at the YMCA and makes tree deliveries across the city. Little is known about Noel aside from a few key details: he lives upstate, coming into the city every Christmas to work, and he’s still getting over a recent break-up (his ex-girlfriend would work with him every year, making this Christmas an especially lonely one). To make matters worse, a young couple works the day shift, their presence a constant reminder to Noel of what he used to have.
The monotony of Noel’s job takes a turn for him when he finds Lydia (Hannah Gross) passed out on a bench near his work. After letting her sleep in his trailer, she vanishes the next morning, only to return again days later. Noel and Lydia strike up a sort of casual friendship, one more out of necessity than by choice. Both of them have similar issues, and their isolation only draws them closer together. Poekel ends up taking their relationship in an unexpected direction by the end, one that’s surprisingly satisfying considering its lack of a clear resolution.
And while Poekel’s naturalistic, semi-adapted experiences help him get away with making such a plotless film (some scenes feel like they must have been lifted directly from Poekel’s life), it’s Kentucker Audley’s performance that keeps everything in place. Audley gives the kind of performance bound to get unfairly ignored. Noel barely says a word unless he has to, so Audley must express everything through mannerisms and expressions. Audley perfectly balances the distanced, solitary traits of Noel with the sense of a deep inner turmoil lurking right underneath the surface. It’s the kind of performance that never calls attention to itself, yet remains a captivating force throughout.
By the end of Christmas, Again’s brief runtime, Poekel’s preference of little to no narrative momentum begins to wear things down, but not enough to cause any serious damage. For the most part, the listless tone helps establish the film as a refreshing take on the Christmas movie. It doesn’t like to think big or provide a neat character arc, preferring to act as a brief snapshot into one person’s wistful existence during the holidays. It may not be the most exciting thing to watch, but it provides something unique, relatable and ultimately worthwhile.
This review was originally published as part of our coverage for the 2015 New Directors/New Films festival.