Obviously a labor of love for all parties involved, “Noelle” is an engagingly low-key, Christian-skewing indie that could score respectable B.O. as well-timed holiday season counterprogramming. Multihyphenate David Wall’s uplifting drama risks ruffling a few feathers with elements that could be interpreted by some Catholics as insensitive, if not insulting. (Ironically, pic opened the same weekend as the much heavier-hyped “The Golden Compass,” target of a boycott organized by the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.) Overall, though, “Noelle” has enough interdenominational appeal to attract a wide segment of the aud for faith-based entertainment.
In a bleak December, Father Jonathan Keene (Wall), a sort of roving efficiency expert for the Catholic hierarchy, arrives in a snow-blanketed Cape Cod hamlet to determine whether the local church should be shut down because of dwindling attendance. He isn’t at all encouraged when he discovers the local pastor — Father Simeon Joyce (Sean Patrick Brennan), a seminary classmate — is a melancholy alcoholic who’s using church funds to pay for an aged parishioner’s medical expenses.
Keene prides himself on his dispassionate approach to shutting down churches that are no longer financially viable but admits that, when it comes to such priestly duties as comforting the afflicted and counseling the needy, “I avoid the whole people side entirely.” He needs a shot at redemption and rejuvenation.
And that’s exactly what he gets as, while trying to direct a few of the colorfully eccentric townspeople in a Christmas pageant, Keene is increasingly drawn to a sad-eyed librarian, Marjorie Worthington (Kerry Wall, wife of the director), who’s romantically involved with the arrogant scion of a wealthy family (Curt Dewitz).
If he wants to enjoy happily-ever-aftering, however, Keene must first deal with the matter of Marjorie’s inconvenient pregnancy and resolve his own issues regarding his guilt-fueled motives for becoming a priest in the first place.
Throughout the pic, David Wall maintains a lightness of touch and a generosity of spirit, avoiding overt preachiness even while characters engage in animated discussions about faith, religion, guilt and expiation. Some Catholics may object to Marjorie’s unchallenged description of an orphanage “run by nuns who never wanted to be mothers in the first place,” and to the cliched plot device of a priest (actually, in this case, two priests) tempted to renounce vows and savor romantic love. (On the other hand, other auds may be riled by Keene’s professed desire to win Protestants over “to the one, true church.”) But pic’s strong pro-life stance should be enough to placate even those who might criticize “Noelle” on religious grounds.
Lead and supporting roles are capably played by largely unknown thesps who are all the more effective for their unfamiliarity. (Daffyd Rees makes the most of his scene as a wise and dry-witted barkeep.) One minor drawback: Wall looks so much like a circa-1970 Robert Redford that the resemblance distracts from the drama in a few key scenes.
Beecher Cotton’s moody lensing of Cape Cod winterscapes and Andrew Ingkavet’s delicate musical score are the film’s standout production values.
Pic’s title, by the way, is cued by a ghostly child (played Brennan Wall, the writer-director’s daughter) used sparingly but compellingly as a symbolic plot device.