Director Charles Poekel bases his downbeat, holiday-set debut on years spent selling Christmas trees to Greenpoint residents
As Yuletide offerings go, Charles Poekel’s “Christmas, Again” might as well be called “It’s a So-So Life” — a downbeat but never outright depressing reminder that the holidays tend to look a lot less jolly from the vantage of those peddling Christmas cheer. Whereas David Sedaris made the same point with considerably more wit in “The Santaland Diaries,” this quiet, observational portrait of a taciturn young Christmas tree salesman stuck spending another December camping out on the streets of New York offers modest, VOD-scale pleasures, but is probably best viewed in the warmer months as the curious indie-movie anthropology study that it is.
In the tradition of such DIY day-job dramas as “The Happy Poet” and “Beeswax,” Poekel’s debut was inspired by three years its writer-director spent hustling evergreens to hipsters in Greenpoint, Brooklyn — a job that transformed the normally festive month of December into a surreal state of semi-homelessness, as Poekel (and the dozens of other tree sellers doing the same thing) passed their nights in trailers and cars near the lots where they worked.
Poekel barely bothers to invent a plot (not that such a slender film overtly needs one), focusing instead on the funk his sullen protag, Noel (Kentucker Audley), feels working the stand by himself. Technically, he splits the job with two young lovebirds who handle the dayshift, though being confronted with their inseparability only makes it worse, since Noel associates the job with his unseen ex-g.f., who opted to spend her holidays doing something else this year.
It’s impossible to say how serious they were as a couple (if the label even applies, since it might have been entirely one-sided). Offering no flashbacks and precious few clues, Poekel relies on the underspoken character to convey this sense of absence through a series of prickly, passive-aggressive interactions with his two co-workers and a variety of briefly glimpsed customers. Taking out his heartbreak on others, Noel is curt and surprisingly unhelpful with clients, though never in a snide “Bad Santa” sense. Audley makes him sympathetic, and at times, he’s even capable of kindness, as when he rescues a drunken girl () from a park bench and allowing her to sleep it off in his camper.
If the New Yorkers around him can be divided into white-collar and blue-collar types, Noel belongs to a third category: an underspoken flannel-collar guy from upstate who feels out of place in the big city. Such characters rarely serve as the focus of an entire feature, and that novelty provides a zen-like calm at the center of the stress the Gothamites around him bring to the Christmas season. (An interaction with one douchebag glued to his smartphone underscores how different he is from the locals.)
Shot on grainy Super 16 and accompanied by unexpectedly mellow music (as opposed to traditional Christmas jingles), the film itself feels like a throwback to the kind of New York character study someone like Jerry Schatzberg (“Panic in Needle Park”) or Hal Ashby (“The Landlord”) might have dreamt up back in the ’70s, though it manages only the minimal threshold of dramatic tension to sustain its 79-minute running time. Poekel either never asked himself what the character wants, or he decided not to yield to such conventional screenwriting tactics. (A subplot about overusing pain pills hardly registers.) That’s fine for Euro fest auds at a place like Locarno, where the pic premiered, but could frustrate Americans expecting something to happen.
Customers mostly come and go, though one flirty young lady requests a Christmas Eve delivery that sounds more enticing that it turns out, and the girl from the park bench resurfaces — as does her jealous boyfriend — to break up the routine. Efficiently trimmed by editor Robert Greene (“Listen Up Philip”), the pic’s charm comes from its moments of unforced naturalism: little observations about the way people behave, paired with details and anecdotes that Poekel himself lived during his years operating McGrolick Trees, the same stand where the film was shot.
Poekel describes this approach as “Method writing,” though most people would call it research. This specificity gives the film texture, from the way Noel wraps and prepares the trees for sale to the night a synthetic blanket catches fire and nearly burns down his caravan, while an almost allergic resistance to melodrama keeps the experience feeling real, rather than sappy — which is more than can be said of the hundreds of dead trees he sold to get this movie made.