Christmas, Again screens at the Gene Siskel Film Center this Friday, December 18. For showtimes and ticketing information, click here.
Sean Price Williams, cinematographer of Heaven Knows What, Listen Up Phillip, Queen of Earth, and Charles Poekel’s debut film, Christmas, Again, is certainly one of the best photographers working in contemporary cinema. He illustrates an acute capacity for layering his visuals, where his images possess a particular flinty and dense quality. Often shooting on 16mm film, his images are strikingly intimate and varied; from the sun-soaked yellows of Listen Up Phillip to the ornamental outdoor holiday lighting found in the depths of night in Christmas, Again, Williams’ craft becomes an irreplaceable and irreproducible component to every picture he works on. And it’s among the many vital aspects of Poekel’s film, one where Williams’ warmth produces an immediate connection to the lonely solitude of the picture’s characters.
Christmas, Again opens with the blurred image of Christmas lights strewn throughout New York City. We zero in on Noel (Kentucker Audley), a Christmas-tree salesman, working on a corner lot for his fifth year. Details amount and take on a crushing cumulative aspect, as the distinct sense that Noel – having been dumped by his girlfriend over the course of the year and contending with a hostile boss and disinterested colleagues – has absorbed a lions-share of physical and cerebral anxieties. With photos decorating the camper that he resides in for the season and with Poekel often capturing Audley in close-up, the immediate sensation is that Noel’s face is sitting a little less taut than it did four years ago.
Being Poekel’s feature debut, there’s a remarkable degree of narrative sophistication to Christmas, Again. Not a plot-driven film by any means, the way Poekel reveals detail has an assurance that’s rare in novice directors. He’s not underscoring or accenting narrative touch points, but buries them within his milieu, relying on his actors and technicians to uncover them. This makes for an incredibly naturalistic character portrait, whereby the “events” of the film are staged as fluid environmental responses rather than telegraphed set pieces. This approach is especially key in its central narrative thread, where Noel chases down a thief, only to come across a young woman named Lydia (Hannah Gross, from Nathan Silver’s Stinking Heaven) in the park. Passed out and with but a single shoe in the cold of night, he takes her back to his camper. She slinks out in the periphery of the frame the following morning as Noel is with a customer, unaware of her retreat. Her disappearance isn’t discussed and simply becomes part of the tapestry of the picture, an un-engineered anomaly in Noel’s routine. That is until Lydia reemerges, again and again, hovering over Noel’s life like an apparition.
The film pivots and moves on the small gestures that amass, with Kentucker Audley’s performance standing out as among the very best of the year. There’s a reticence to his actions, a sulking, inward quality that pulls you in. A highlight sees him delivering a Christmas tree to a wealthy family’s home, a pregnant wife at the door with her crutch-addled husband by her side. Audley positions the tree, lying supine as he screws the tree to its base. He glances at the woman and her husband, their affections getting the best of them. Upon completing the task, Audley stands up, slumped over and in the shadows as he awaits a tip, before storming out. He’s seen next in tears. The sequence illustrates how tightly all the moving components of the picture work together: camera placement suggests something socially hierarchical, lightening and editing to contrast the socially alienated with the socially attuned, and performance to heighten that distinction.
It’s been a rich year for directorial debuts, with such American standouts being Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Josh Mond’s James White, and John Magary’s The Mend. But Christmas Again may very well be the best of the crop. Its steady accumulation of tiny details, emotionally complex characters, and mature understanding of relationships all make for a complicated and refreshing revision of what it means to tell a Christmas story.