White Reindeer

Zach Clark’s different kind of holiday film looks at the unhappy flipside of what is supposed to be the merriest time of the year.
White Reindeer

Image: supplied

'I have a special feeling about this Christmas,' suburban Washington D.C. real estate agent Suzanne Barrington (Anna Margaret Hollyman, Somebody Up There Likes Me) enthuses to her meteorologist husband Jeff (Nathan Williams, In the Electric Mist) as they gear up for a festive December. Then, tragedy renders her alone, distraught and facing an uncertain holiday season. Excessive online shopping, guzzling eggnog and going overboard with Christmas paraphernalia, her first forms of solace, prove empty distractions. Striking up a friendship with Fantasia (debutant Laura Lemar-Goldsborough), a dancer Jeff was secretly a little too friendly with, surprisingly offers a more meaningful path to catharsis.

So it is that White Reindeer, writer/director Zach Clark’s take on a different kind of holiday film after 2010’s Vacation!, offers exactly what most of its genre avoid: a look at the unhappy flipside of what is supposed to be the merriest time of the year. In his bittersweet black comedy, he peers behind the façade of festive cheer and suburban bliss to provide a glimpse into the diverse reality. A tackily over-decorated front lawn just might hide simmering misery. A front door indistinct from all the others on the block just might provide the entranceway to a different inner life. Venturing outside of an orderly comfort zone just might bring more good than harm.

Such platitudes and generalisations, talking of the discontent that potentially plagues us all, the presenting of a smiling demeanour to the world to pretend otherwise, and the embrace of variety complete with the unexpected lessons it can bring, might seem too clichéd and commonly seen; however thankfully Clark never departs from the gloomy amusement and general awkwardness at the heart of his material. Inherent in his approach is not revelation, but acceptance. His story might speak of taking the bad with the good with a survivalist spirit, yet it does so in a bleakly balanced manner – with a scathing sense of humour that skewers everything the over-commercialised, suburban Christmas has come to mean, but without a full-scale descent into dismissive cynicism.

Selling the melancholy and the message is the superb cast led by the excellent Hollyman, who perfects the feature’s subversion of stereotypes and transformation from idealised to exposed. Watching the initially perky blonde struggle with grief, reject the trappings of her current existence, and flirt with rebellion through drugs, shoplifting and sex parties may seem like familiar fodder once more, but there’s nothing ordinary about her expression of Suzanne’s loneliness, yearning and discovery. In her only film role to date, the naturalistic Lemar-Goldsborough fleshes out a character normally considered a means to an end, and is gifted with one of the greatest lines in recent cinema. Brief appearances by Joe Swanberg (Happy Christmas) and Lydia Hyslop (24 Exposures) as swinging neighbours stray into more overtly comic territory, but again underscores the perversity lingering beneath the surface.

With flat shots but finessed editing, Clark brings the pathos of supposed pithiness to the screen with a palette that paints in the colours of the season yet lacks the lustre normally associated with such shiny, happy times, as befitting the material. Awash in red but never radiating with brightness, its an easy but effective aesthetic reinforcement of the crux of the entire film, as is the constant placement of other items of merriment – candy canes, in particular – at pivotal moments. The often carol-filled soundtrack achieves the same impact, cheery tunes juxtaposed against mournful occasions. That’s White Reindeer from start to finish: jollily dark on the outside, moodily poignant underneath. Tis the season, it seems, for truths, turbulence and satire tinged with hard-earned sweetness.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

White Reindeer
Director: Zach Clark
USA, 2013, 82 mins

Australian Centre for the Moving Image

8 – 24 December

Sarah Ward

Tuesday 9 December, 2014

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay