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White Reindeer
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by Jay Seaver

"Unhappy holidays."
4 stars

SCREENED AT BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL 15: It would be kind of amusing if, in the future, "White Reindeer" winds up dropped into the Christmas rotation of independent-minded theaters, television stations, and online-streaming-lists as an apparent poison pill. Not that there aren't already plenty of those, but this one's a bit different: It's neither gleeful in mocking the holiday nor secretly trying to convince the audience of its true meaning.

Suzanne Barrington (Anna Margaret Hollyman) loves Christmas; just as soon as Thanksgiving has passed, the realtor is trying to create that sort of homey environment. She sells one house to Patti & George (Lydia Hyslop, Joe Swanberg) , assuring them that she lives in the neighborhood and the worries about recent break-ins are overblown. But on the first of December, her own husband Jeff (Nathan Williams) is killed during a home invasion, and to make things worse, she soon learns that he had an affair with Fantasia (Laura Lemar-Goldsborough), a twenty-two year-old stripper. It's going to be a rough holiday season.

White Reindeer isn't a yelling movie, nor is it one where the poor widow spends every moment visibly brittle and on the edge of breaking down. Indeed, the angle often played here is that sometimes losing a person you love is not constant outward torture, which can make a person feel even more horrible. So, instead, there's a great deal of quiet loneliness, online binge-shopping to try and bring oneself a little happiness, and befriending her husband's mistress because she'd understand, right? Even when this sort of thing leads to weird misadventures, it's fairly low-key.

Fortunately, Anna Margarent Hollyman can handle low-key. She spends a great deal of the movie portraying more-or-less well-disguised desperation, smiling sweetly because that's what this woman does, but always with the indication that it's a superficial or fleeting happiness. It's not flashy, but it lets her be funny or allow a situation to be funny when the situation is absurd as well as horrible without undercutting the authenticity of her sadness. She and Laura Lemar-Goldsborough can be a rather somber pair, but not crushingly so. Lemar-Goldsborough actually does a good job with a character who could go wrong in a lot of ways; Fantasia is written as having to shoulder a fair amount of responsibility while still being sort of recklessly youthful, and she manages to get that across without overplaying the latter or swinging back and forth.

As mentioned, writer/director Zack Clark doesn't just have them being sad at the camera all the time; the movie's actually at its strongest when Suzanne finds herself in darkly funny situations, whether it be what seems like a strange about-face made by her parents or the different groups of people she falls in with in order to try and feel some sort of pleasure (and credit Clark for letting Suzanne be kind of unremarkably suburban but not boring without looking down on the more naturally adventurous). He uses the Christmas setting well, making the holidays both a refuge and a countdown to something she just can't live up to. He stumbles a bit at points, like when he pushes what was a clever motif of Suzanne's red sweater to a too-obvious scene, and some of its edgier humor might be off-putting to folks who would otherwise appreciate the story, but overall he does a nice job of connecting unlikely characters in interesting ways.

Is "White Reindeer" ultimately an uplifting Christmas movie? Not really; the best ending on tap is "you'll survive". But it's rounded in places where sharpness is often attempted but ineffective without seeming dishonest. And maybe that sort of change in perspective would be appreciated amid some enforced positivity.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=24842&reviewer=371
originally posted: 04/10/13 13:35:06
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 South by Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2013 South by Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Boston Underground Film Festival For more in the 2013 Boston Underground Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

1/08/14 Cynthia Teer Really Makes you think. 4 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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  06-Dec-2013

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Australia
  06-Dec-2013




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