You can blame Christmas for everything that seems to not work in the first quarter of White Reindeer, Zach Clark's moving, surprising indie comedy of loss, grief and yuletide hell-raising. As with the holiday season itself, the movie comes on strong before you're ready for it, hitting us with Hawaiian carols and beaming couples in those dot-matrix-looking snowflake sweaters. At first, its lampooning of holiday cheer feels arch, as if Clark—who wrote, directed and edited—is setting up a broad, easy comedy engineered to get railed against by FOX hosts.
But soon, as the film's shell-shocked heroine slumps into a daze of Internet shopping inside her suburban palace, the sense behind the grating twinkliness becomes clear: If White Reindeer's satirical elements feel off the rack, that's because what they're satirizing in our real lives is, too. Clark risks losing us by making his fiction's holiday cheer just as chintzy as what we're subjected to on our way to the theater.
But then things get interesting. Fascinating even, coursing along on a current of urgent sadness. In the opening scenes, Virginia realtor Suzanne (Anna Margaret Hollyman) is living one of those lives movie characters start with or end with but can't hold to during the story itself: Her job is fulfilling, her weatherman husband is a "local treasure," and they're moving to Hawaii just as soon as the holidays pass. The titles play over a montage of her shopping, a little aimlessly, in a local mall, and the jaunty Christmas music cuts against shots of her wandering the parking lot in search of her car—there's a gentle alienation here, that tug of anxiety you may feel when you suspect your errands might be meaningless, but nothing that suggests the darkness to come when she gets home.
White Reindeer was written and directed by Zach Clark; and stars Anna Margaret Hollyman, Laura Lemar-Goldsborough, Lydia Hyslop, Joe Swanberg and Nathan Williams. Not rated.
There she finds her husband dead, apparently murdered in a home invasion. Suzanne collapses, and that holiday cheer around her soldiers on. What follows is nothing like the facile getting-your-life-back-together films we've all suffered through before. Suzanne slogs through the three weeks before Christmas in a shell-shocked stupor, her face often slack even as her eyes search the world around her for anything worth looking at.
Clark grinds his excellent lead actress through humiliations: We see Suzanne fart, pee, puke (twice) and weep on the toilet. More revealingly, we see her shop, mesmerized at her computer, dropping $5,000 on clothes from a single website—and hallucinating that a sweater model just looked up and made eye contact. Movies get the Internet wrong so often that it's jarring to see one that captures what it's actually like—to recognize that glazed look people get when they're stupefied before a screen, clicking on whatever, just trying to push through the present moment and onto the next one. It feels true, too, when Suzanne checks her husband's browser history, discovering just one thing he'd like to have kept hidden: his visits to "Nasty Chocolate Teens," a site she eyeballs but doesn't get freaked out by, especially.
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More upsetting is a revelation spilled at the post-funeral housewarming. Turns out, her husband had enjoyed a brief fling with a stripper named Autumn (Laura Lemar-Goldsborough). Suzanne, of course, visits Autumn's club and introduces herself—but what follows is unlikely and wonderful. The two hit it off, bonding a little shyly but eventually sharing a ladies' night with Autumn's co-workers, clubbing, snorting and losing themselves in one of those rare movie drug freakouts that manages to stir a sense memory of actual drug use.
More bad behavior follows, as does an even greater transgressive leap. The chirpy neighbors whose Christmas sweaters proved such a cloying distraction earlier turn out to be swingers, and they happen to be hosting an orgy. Suzanne, in a burst of touching assertiveness, insists upon an invite. The resulting comedy is endearingly warm as nice-enough everyfolk strip down, pleasure one another and try the pâté. Clark previously made Modern Love Is Automatic, a disaffected comedy about a nurse turned dominatrix; White Reindeer, an altogether warmer film, nudges Suzanne toward her own unconventional liberation, but the sex here is about real-life fellowship rather than shock or role-play. A scene of the participants laughing together in the aftermath, nude and playing video games, is every bit as affecting as the more conventional communion of the climax: Suzanne, at a Christmastide church service, singing along to "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," the same song that brings together all the little shits who ragged on Charlie Brown's teensy tree. Suzanne, we learn, doesn't hold to religious beliefs, but she and Autumn both, in a complex and tender scene, confess to a need for Christmas itself—the day, rather than the buildup, the feeling of giving and belonging.
In the end, Clark and Hollyman know to not suggest that Suzanne has healed, or even that everything will be all right for her. But they both feel enough to risk being assailed for sentimentality, for going all-in on the power of Christmas itself in a shaggy indie that can't resist broadsides against the culture of unthinking consumption that has festered about the holiday. Congratulations to them for their courage—there's radiance in White Reindeer's darkness, which is what winter solstice festivals have always been about in the first place.