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CHRISTMAS, AGAIN (2015) review

December 21, 2015

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written by: Charles Poekel
produced by: Charles Poekel
directed by: Charles Poekel
rated: unrated
running time: 80 min.
U.S. release date: December 3, 2015 & December 18, 2015 (limited), also avail. on iTunes, Amazon, Fandor and Vimeo 

 

Of all the films I watch throughout the year, my hope is to discover new talent – or, at least, talent that is new to me. That’s what happened when I came across actor Kentucker Audley and writer/producer/director Charles Poekel and their work in Poekel’s feature-length debut, “Christmas, Again”. If you’re looking for a Christmas movie that shows the holiday as it is –  instead of a jolly production with a predictable plot and annoyingly saccharine songs – here’s your movie. It’s December and Noel (Kentucker Audley) is selling Christmas trees on a Brooklyn street corner for the fifth year. That’s right, a twentysomething guy named Noel, selling Christmas trees. The rest of the year, he works upstate, building houses. Here he works the night shift, as if by choice. Not the best choice, mind you, since he’s still reeling from a seemingly recent break-up with his girlfriend and this solitary job doesn’t really help calm his increasing despair. He practically lives out of the trailer he works out of, where he tries to sleep during the day, despite the incessant noise of city life.  

 

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He has a warm and friendly presence with customers, patiently answering their questions and describing how to tend to their newly purchased trees. But, there’s a sadness in his eyes and an annoyance with the day-shift couple who relieves him of his shift each morning – it may be because he’s had to struggle to stay up all night or because, well, they’re late and kind of lazy. Or, it could be because they seem happy. Most of the time though, he can be found sitting in his trailer and downing uppers to stay awake.

One night, Noel meets a girl. She’s not a customer, but a drunk girl he finds passed out on a park bench. He encounters her after unsuccessfully chasing down a thief who ran off with one of his trees. Concerned for her, he helps the still unconscious girl back to his trailer and lets her sleep off her inebriated stupor. He also takes care of some gum stuck in her hair as well. She disappears the next morning without Noel noticing, in order to save herself any embarrassment.

Lydia (Hannah Gross) eventually makes her way back to Noel’s corner, offering homemade blackberry pie to show her thanks, but her return inadvertently brings some unwanted boyfriend drama.  In between and after her return, we see Noell interact with customers and it’s here where Poekel shows us the grind of a job that is often completely overlooked (not to mention rarely ever covered in the movies). Anyone who’s worked customer service or retail knows full well the type of entitled, impatient and frustrating people who you’re bound to encounter. It’s inevitable.  

 

 

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That Poekel includes Noel’s numerous customer interactions, both on-site and deliveries – serves to inform us of the connection (or disconnection, at times) this vendor has with the community. It’s not that he goes out of his way – have the time he just sits there – it’s that he’s there. His location is convenient and the locals (most of whom assumingly have no car) expect him to be there each year and they point out, “We bought from you last year,” as if they recognize a friend.  

For the few rude customers he has, there’s the one who compliments Noel on his decorative wreaths – which is huge for a guy who has a weary ego. “Christmas, Again” is best when it offers such kindness, be it in words or deeds. Sometimes the rewards of such kindness can be found in our work tasks. We see that when Noel takes Lydia (who winds up being another damaged soul, maybe moreso than Noel) along with him as he delivers trees to a handful of very different locations on Christmas Eve. They visit a friendly family with three excited children, a lively party and a senior living center whose occupants light up as bright as tree lights once Noel props up their tree.  

These acts of kindness produce an equal amount of joy for the giver as it does the recipient and it’s a delight to see a visible change come across the faces of both Lydia and Noel. It seems as if they just may start to connect, but then again I did tell you this isn’t that kind of Christmas movie. The characters here (especially Noel) are just too real for any of that happy ending nonsense and Poekel’s consistent tone throughout, grounded in reality, isn’t having any of it either.

Poekel comes to us from a real place. He actually spent about three years selling trees on a New York borough corner just like Noel does here. It clearly informed his writing process and exposed him to this subculture of tree vendors. He affectively captures the isolation and potential for loneliness of the job. Poekel is assisted by Sean Price Williams, a cinematographer who often collaborates with writer/director Alex Ross Perry, one who has a distinctive style with lighting and colors. He can get in close with actors, often leaving the background out-of-focus as if time is frozen, which is similar to the way people are observed. There’s a lived-in look to the production design of “Christmas, Again”, especially the lot where Noel works and specifically his old trailer.

I became aware of actor Kentucker Audley a couple of months back when I saw him in “The Middle Distance”, which was playing at the Chicago International Film Festival. He didn’t have a large role in the film, but I found him to be one of the most interesting characters in it and it was clear it was because of what Audley was doing with the role. He’s probably best known for his supporting role in 2013’s “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” (which I still haven’t caught up with), but he was also in horror flicks “V/H/S” and “The Sacrament“. After seeing him in this, I’m determined to seek out his previous work and the film’s he’s directed as well. That’s right, he’s also an independent filmmaker – having directed “Open Five” and “Open Five 2” – which makes this magnetic actor all the more intriguing to me.

At first, I was concerned about the film’s running time. But, I didn’t even think about it once I was well into the film. Usually, when a film is under 90 minutes, I’m left wondering if there was every more to the story, but I enjoyed Audley and Poekel’s work so much that I found myself wishing I can hang out with them a little longer.

 

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RATING: ***1/2 

 

 

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