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Christmas

Offering a realistic and blackly humorous slice of suburban misery, the anything-but-merry "Christmas" marks an impressive debut from helmer Gregory King. Pic follows a dysfunctional family as they celebrate the season with very little cheer. Only the most adventurous distribs are likely to stuff this depressing trinket into theatrical stockings.

Offering a painfully realistic and blackly humorous slice of suburban misery, the anything-but-merry “Christmas” marks a most impressive feature debut from Kiwi helmer Gregory King. Covering a period leading up to Christmas in a lower-middle-class home, DV-shot pic follows a dysfunctional family as they celebrate the season with very little cheer. Having already worked its way from two Antipodean fests to Locarno and Edinburgh, film could easily keep going on the circuit, but only the most adventurous distribs are likely to stuff this depressing trinket into theatrical stockings.

Eldest son Keri (David Hornblow), returning home from overseas to Whangerei, N.Z., is greeted by his longsuffering mother, Loma (Darien Takle), gruff father, Brian (Tony Waerea), brother Richard (Czahn Armstrong), and sister Megan (Helen Pearse Otene), a mother of two young kids whose b.f., Brett (Matthew Sunderland), comes and goes. Lurking in the background is withdrawn younger sister Donna (Kate Sullivan).

A bit like a tranquilized episode of Blighty’s hit deadpan sitcom, “The Royle Family,” nothing much happens during the course of the movie. Characters mostly watch — or ignore — the perpetually switched-on television and bicker in the living room, or masturbate and suffer in private. Even the toilet isn’t safe from the camera’s prying eye. Script, which is heavy on Kiwi slang — which may limit pic’s international prospects — relates, over a five-day period, the relationship of the retired Loma and Brian which has settled into a testy stalemate, their savings consumed by their brood of grown children.

Megan is neurotic and prone to explosive bursts of anger and hysteria. Sunny-tempered stoner Richard is apparently gay, judging by his choice of porn, although it’s unclear whether or not the family has chosen to ignore this. Donna is pregnant, and Keri lovelorn and broke. The closest the film has to a climax is an ear-splitting argument between Megan and Keri that results in a smashed window.

King seems influenced partly by the Antipodean taste for the grotesque, evident in Jane Campion’s early “Sweetie,” as well as by Mike Leigh’s cruel dissections of family and suburban life. Nearly all the players here are non-professionals, which makes the naturalistic perfs all the more impressive.

Some of the pic’s shots look as carelessly composed as bad family snaps, while others have a near-classical, formal neatness. Lenser Virginia Loane breaks up the monotony of her long, immobile takes by frequently varying the angles, from very low to nearly overhead. Editing intersperses long scenes with shorter ones to create a choppy rhythm.

Luridly colored production design is spot on, capturing the subtropical, summertime milieu. Special praise is due pic’s hairdresser for giving brunette Megan halfway through the film just the right kind of “wrong” blonde cut-and-dye job her character would choose.

Christmas

New Zealand

  • Production: A Severe Features production, in association with New Zealand Film Commission, Screen Innovation Fund. (International sales: Severe, Auckland, New Zealand.) Produced by Leanne Saunders. Directed, written by Gregory King.
  • Crew: Camera (color, DigiBeta, PAL), Virginia Loane; editor, Campbell Walker; art director, Caroline Faigan; sound, Allan Holdaway; sound designer, Rachel Shearer; assistant directors, Anton Steel, Jeremy Anderson; casting, Willington Dra Mackay. Reviewed at Locarno Film Festival (competing -- video), Aug. 11, 2003. (Also in Edinburgh Film Festival.) Running time: 86 MIN.
  • With: <b>With:</b> David Hornblow, Helen Pearse Otene, Darien Takle, Tony Waerea, Kate Sullivan, Czahn Armstrong, Milo Cawthorne, Charlotte Palmer, Bridget Riggir-Cuddy, Matthew Sunderland.