Just saying the title of Charles Poekel's directorial debut sparks a sadness inside a person, one that they've never experienced perhaps. Imagine getting to the point in life where you look upon a calendar, and due to poor circumstance, a failed relationship, a family death, or some other unforeseen situation, your mood for the holiday season is dour and sad and all you can do is simply sigh and say, yes, "Christmas, again."
Such is life for our lead character Noel, played by independent writer/director/actor Kentucker Audley, who has also worked with Joe Swanberg in the past, a Christmas tree salesman who is currently spending the holidays working through fond memories of a woman with whom he has just broken up. Now, Christmas is just an irritating force begging him to be happy and cheerful when he feels anything but. Through all this pain, Noel finds some sort of evident solace and comfort in schlepping Christmas trees to set up, deliver, cut down, or decorate, to the point where he seems to try and find every little thing wrong with his employees' actions because he would like to do what they're doing again.
Noel fights through the hurt, and is elevated by the people that come to his Christmas tree farm, the kind of quirky people that are just quirky enough to be believable, doing things like talking to their significant others on the phone whilst purchasing a tree, demanding that the salesman pose next to the tree for a picture to try and give an estimate on the height, and so forth. One day, Noel winds up finding Lydia (Hannah Gross) asleep on a park bench, missing her purse, a shoe, and clearly worn from a night of drunken escapades. She works to add some sporadic spice into his life upon leaving him rather abruptly the night after he finds her sleeping on a park bench. In the meantime, Noel slaves away at his job, working the tireless night shifts, guided and uplifted by the optimism brought upon him by lottery tickets and energy shots in order to maintain some semblance of sanity.
Noel is a fascinating character just by the way Poekel chooses to define and show him. In a screen writing sense, Poekel doesn't set up these compromising or very revealing scenarios that allow us to see Noel in a way that over-personalizes him or makes his motivations and emotions all too clear to us. Instead, Poekel prefers to have Christmas, Again function as a very meditative film, focused on intimate closeups of Noel's bearded face, wide eyes, and constantly overworked face. These traits alone personalize him more than most screen writing tactics could, and Poekel keeps Christmas, Again very observant in this manner. In seventy-seven minutes, rarely does a frame exist that Noel isn't in, so the result is a film that's focused on this sole subject to the point where his world becomes fairly clear, or at least extractable, without the need of overly obvious storytelling.
But, let's not forget, Noel wouldn't be the character he is without Kentucker Audley, an uncommonly natural performer with a gift at understated acting. Audley is a gifted performer thanks to his ability to take any character and, regardless of he or someone else is the writer, work with such a character to at least give him some kind of thesis or idea for with the audience can concern themselves. As stated, Audley's face says more than any writing Poekel could do, and his naturalism recalls the early days of mumblecore, where lowlit settings, naturalistic acting, and low budgets were as normal as believably eccentric, last-minute visitors to a Christmas tree farm.
Admittedly slight but a quietly observant look at functional loneliness and how sadness doesn't have to be a thoroughly exhausted theme in a film by way of orchestration and mawkish circumstance, Poekel's Christmas, Again hits all the right notes for a delightful anti-Christmas film. In a more cynical, but broader, dissection of the film, I find that the film looks at the lie of the season of Christmas; is it really the happiest time of the year, or a season that forces those lonely, unsatisfied, or hurting to look at themselves and only feel more of an outsider or a downer in the world. Personal empathy and just an understanding of human condition allows me to laud the film more on that level than any other one I can conceive, and that's a real accomplishment for a holiday film in and of itself.
Starring: Kentucker Audley and Hannah Gross. Directed by: Charles Poekel.