Director: Charles Poekel
Stars: Kentucker Audley, Hannah Gross
3 (out of 5) Globes
Noel (Kentucker Audley) has the kind of job that is his life. But he’s not exactly a workaholic. For him his profession is an intentional oblivion. He toils on the night shift at a New York City sidewalk Christmas tree lot, burning the hours all by himself. When his shift ends, he retires to an adjacent trailer, trying to snooze through the loud business transactions transpiring outside. His customer interactions are dispassionate and distant, and though we can sense contempt when he has to explain that you know to change the tree water when there’s no more water, he’s no Billy Bob in “Bad Santa.” He takes his job seriously and seeks to do nothing but.
“Christmas, Again” gives him some stock indie film issues. Yes, he’s escaping heartbreak. Yes, he will be slowly lured out of his shell by a nice woman, Lydia (Hannah Gross). Yes, there will be a far too on-the-nose symbolic final shot. (Let’s not even get into naming a hero in a Christmas movie “Noel.”) But writer-director Charles Poekel — drawing loosely on his own stint at the same menial job — knows to downplay them, even to avoid predictable outcomes. Noel’s “meet-cute” with Lydia is finding her passed out on a park bench, her cellphone in a homeless man’s hands. Even when she shows perhaps improbable interest in a guy with no visible interest in making human contact with anyone, she still has a boyfriend, and their growing relationship will remain bittersweet.
This plot never totally dominates “Christmas, Again,” which is largely a collection of moments, some of them clearly pulled from Poekel’s experiences, all about the grind of living in this particular skin. Audley, in a beautifully understated performance, never telegraphs Noel’s pain, never beckons the audience to see him, e.g., crying on the inside. Audley is both remote and magnetic, though it helps that we are effectively stuck with him. Star cinematographer Sean Price Williams (“Listen Up Philip,” “Heaven Knows What”) mostly shoots in close-ups and medium shots, rarely establishing shots, mimicking Noel’s claustrophobic existence. It’s a world out of time, filled with old scratchy records on the soundtrack, trapping us with someone who’d rather be forgotten, if it’s all the same.