White Reindeer (2013)

White Reindeer is a Christmas dramedy written and directed by indie filmmaker Zach Clark and largely financed through Kickstarter. The only famous actor in this is Joe Swanberg, who directed Happy Christmas, which was made with a similar focus on realism over conventional narrative. That said, White Reindeer occasionally drifts into the surreal - maybe even the supernatural, though that's ambiguous.

As I often do with movies I like, I'm going to cut to the chase and let you know this is absolutely a movie I recommend. By design, it's a tad light on payoff, and it's certainly not a feel-good movie, but it's a fascinating, honest look at how alienating and difficult the Christmas season can be for anyone who isn't in a position to appreciate cheer and goodwill.

A few caveats before anyone starts streaming, though: this movie should have a warning upfront for flashing lights, and I don't remember seeing one. I don't think I've ever seen the kind of full-screen sudden white flashes that were used to great effect here to evoke cocaine use. It's obvious when the drug use is coming up, so be aware if that's something that affects you. Also, if you're bothered by nudity, you should probably avoid this.

The movie follows Suzanne (played by Anna Margaret Hollyman), a real estate agent whose husband is killed off-camera in a burglary early in the movie. This occurs less than a month before Christmas, just after he'd been offered a job in Hawaii. Soon after his death, she learns he'd had an ongoing affair the prior year with a young stripper named Fantasia.

She tracks down the stripper and the two bond and become friends. She also connects with a pair of swingers she sold a house to in the opening minutes of the movie. Meanwhile, she finds herself repulsed by her existing friends and family, who extend offers of help but seem unable to comprehend what she needs or is going through.

Structurally, the movie is less a story than an odyssey. It's somewhat unclear what, exactly, Suzanne is searching for, but my impression is the character doesn't know, either. For a while, it seems like she wants to learn more about her husband, but she rarely seems all that affected by what she discovers. She's far more bothered by the thought that she never knew him and therefore was in love with an invented persona than she is about his affair.

Likewise, she spends a great deal of time trying to find some sort of connection to the holidays. She outright says as much a few times and spends an absurd amount of money purchasing decorations and gifts for herself. Ultimately, she keeps referring to the idea of Christmas in Hawaii, which becomes sort of a magical Christmas destination. Towards the end of the movie, she nearly buys a one-way ticket (perhaps planning to end her life there), only to stop when Fantasia needs help.

Suzanne's journey also involves other actions that should be self-destructive but almost seem therapeutic. She uses cocaine on several occasions, she attends (and participates in) an orgy, and she gets arrested trying to shoplift a pregnancy test. Which brings up another question...

The movie never actually tells whether she's pregnant with her late husband's child. Suzanne learns a few minutes before the end of the film, but she never discusses it aloud. Likewise, we never get much closure on a strange sequence just before this, in which she has a conversation with a woman who appears as a fashion model and introduces herself as the Ghost of Christmas Present. It's a fascinating scene, somehow a contrast that's simultaneously creepy and reassuring, magical and mundane. They mostly discuss Christmas, what it means to Suzanne, and what she believes. It's entirely possible she's dreaming the entire thing or even hallucinating. Or perhaps this is an angel or spirit, as it claims. It asks Suzanne whether she wants to be the Ghost of Christmas Past or Future, and the scene ends without an answer. If that isn't the movie in a nutshell, I don't know what is.

It's not really clear what will become of her at the end. The last scene takes place in a church, with the words of the preacher drowned out by the sound of the ocean in her mind. She seems to have a sense of peace, but whether this should be reassuring or worrying isn't clear.

The movie works largely because the director commits to the tone, sacrificing both easy laughs and confrontational drama. There's a way things usually play out in movies, where the goal is to conserve time by focusing on big moments. But those moments rarely occur in the real world, where people are less direct about their emotions when they understand them, and less rational when they're actually willing to share. This movie captures that, as did Happy Christmas.

The comedy is likewise muted. There are laughs here, but they're mainly from a recognition of the absurd, and that absurd rarely seems unrealistic.

The movie conveys the contrasting sense that Christmas is both otherworldly and meaningless. You feel like the harder Suzanne fights to find the magic, the further it slips away. That certainly feels accurate to me.

The other reason this movie works is Anna Margaret Hollyman's performance. She's incredibly restrained, giving you the sense her character is detached from the world around her. I spent the movie uncertain what was going through her head and worried where it might take her.

Again, if you're unwilling to consider a movie without a clear, traditional narrative, you're not going to be happy with this. Likewise, if you can't appreciate Christmas movies unless they fall in a narrow window of lighthearted love stories with easy answers and happy endings, then you'll want to avoid this. But if you're willing to consider an honest investigation of what the holidays can mean when you're facing them during the darkest times of your life, this is an incredibly effective film.