Anna Margaret Hollyman spends Christmas grieving unimaginable loss in "White Reindeer." Credit: IFC Films
‘White Reindeer’ Director: Zach Clark Stars: Anna Margaret Hollyman, Laura Lemar-Goldsborough Rating: R 3 (out of 5) Globes
With the toxic pomp and pep it engenders, the holidays essentially ask for films (and songs, and books, and people) that try to destroy, or at least alleviate, its power. “White Reindeer” goes father than most. Its hero, Suzanne (Anna Margaret Hollyman), is a Christmas fanatic who can’t help but turn on holiday music soon as Thanksgiving ends. (Some people may consider that a bit late.) Returning home one night she finds her suburban house ransacked and her husband dead on the floor with a massive head wound.
“White Reindeer” walks a very, very fine line. It’s technically a black comedy, but it’s also an empathetic drama that takes its protagonist’s subsequent mental breakdown with bewildering seriousness. Suzanne may be overly festive, but she’s no freak. Even in the early, happy stretch, Hollyman plays her as relatively low-key; she’s not a joy monster, just a bit sheltered. Shocked into a zombie state, she no longer takes comfort from kitschy holiday e-cards, which play, piercingly, over shots of her staring dead-eyed and motionless.
What transpires is reminiscent of Bill Forsyth's terrific anti-Christmas classic “Comfort and Joy,” in which a Glasgow DJ who spends the holiday in a funk after being whimsically dumped, then tries to distract himself by getting involved in an absurdly overheated war between rival ice cream trucks. In “White Reindeer,” Suzanne simply has access to her late husband's internet browsing history. She discovers he had a thing for strip bars. Rather than angrily confront his favorite dancer (Laura Lemar-Goldsborough) — stage name: Autumn; real name: Fantasia — she’s open about her motives and winds up befriending her. Soon the two are doing coke at clubs.
What she wants is still self-serving and questionable: She desires access outside her white middle class existence, and Fantasia is the key. “White Reindeer” is aware of this, and it makes Fantasia a full-bodied human, with a daughter and bills to pay and a sense of autonomy. Lemar-Goldsborough plays her as intelligent and soft-spoken, and writer/director Zach Clark gives her and Hollyman gentle, calm scenes where the comedy drops and serious, thoughtful discussions take over.
Occasionally the film trips. Suzanne’s attempts to infiltrate a world of suburban swingers turns judgmental and broad in a way her journeys into the stripper-verse (mostly) do not. It’s a film trying to delve into the non-dramatic areas of inconsolable pain. And like many before it, it’s not quite sure how to end.