white-reindeer-still-1Written, directed and edited by provocative indie filmmaker, Zach Clark (Rock and Roll Eulogy, Modern Love is Automatic and Vacation!, which I will now endeavour to seek out), White Reindeer is a beguiling Christmas film that takes on peculiar odds. Set in pristine suburban Virginia, the fake veneer of brightly coloured festive accessories used to stifle the dark and sombre mood is doubly a comment on the spirit of the holiday and the protagonist’s compensation for the loss of her infectious holiday cheer. Clark’s film is populated with an ensemble of strange and sympathetic characters and is both a darkly comic look at American suburbia and a quietly devastating character study. Embalmed with enough sweetness, pathos and awkward humour to lighten the mood, White Reindeer jabs at our emotions, to profound effect, without being extraordinary. For Suzanne Barrington (a terrifically expressive Anna Margaret Hollyman), a content, well-to-do real estate agent, Christmas-time is the height of the year. Her husband Jeff (Nathan Williams), a popular local meteorologist, has just scored a new job in Hawaii and a recent sale in the neighbourhood to a friendly, swinging couple (Joe Swanberg, Lydia Hyslop) has Suzanne in good holiday spirits.

But, this December, tragedy strikes. Jeff is killed and Suzanne finds herself forced to re-evaluate her life and put the eggnog on hold. Or devour it, as it happens. She discovers a number of distressing secrets about her late husband, and laments on how little she actually knew him. Notably, that there had been another woman in his life. Compelled to meet Fantasia (Laura Lemar-Goldsborough), a very young single-mother who works at a gentleman’s club, the pair share their grief and start an awkward but rewarding friendship.

Suzanne distracts herself from depression and an online shopping addiction by acting out - frequenting neon-lit dance clubs, attending ‘themed’ parties, indulging in many substances and even shoplifting. As Suzanne tries to re-assemble her life on the eve of Christmas, she makes an effort to rekindle the hope held so dearly with the holiday.

This original and very odd Christmas tale never takes liberties by forcing us to sympathize with the characters. It simply shows us that they are regular people, and challenges us to embrace that. Suzanne’s unraveling is believable, her wild behaviour an acceptable diversion from the norm in the wake of such unexpected truths. We understood that there was a weird dynamic between Suzanne and her husband, but before long we are thrust into her discoveries. This leads to an inward psychological study; dealing with her grief, loneliness and these new feelings completely opposing those she assigns the heart of the festive season and those provoked by the lavish adornment of her house. If her husband had been naughty this year, then why can’t she? What does it matter? This Christmas, her past ideals about the holiday and any beliefs she had about her perfect life and what the future held have been seemingly irreversibly transformed. If she is to recapture the hope that has been surrendered to self-deprecation and growing cynicism, she must work through it with her newfound friends. We find ourselves hoping that she does.

Clark has adorned his film with interesting characters and amusing little details. The thoughtful nuances in the photography and set dressing in addition to the sharp screenplay and fine cast enrich this bold indie drama, which is worth a look at next month’s Possible Worlds Festival of American and Canadian Cinema. Blending surreal, yet poignant drama with casual eroticism and a wacky brand of humour, Clark has crafted an intriguing Christmas gem that has prompted me to visit his previous works.

[rating=3] and a Half

Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22

White Reindeer is screening at the 8th Possible Worlds Festival of American and Canadian Cinema, which runs between 8-18 August at Dendy Opera Quays and Dendy Newtown. Ticket purchases and program information can be found here (link: www.possibleworlds.net.au)