Docs rarely come more mainstream audience-friendly than “Becoming Santa,” filmmaker Jeff Myers’ low-key charmer about the joys and challenges of being — temporarily, at least — a Yuletide icon. Pic, voted the audience award for Spotlight Premieres at the SXSW Film Festival, could make some exhibs very merry during limited theatrical exposure before taking flight as homevid and cable fare.
While following the misadventures of Jack Sanderson, a vet showbiz industry personal assistant who decides to play Santa Claus during the 2009 Christmas season, pic also offers a breezy but informative history lesson detailing how the real-life St. Nicholas of ancient Lycia became — with a little help from Civil War-era illustrators and Coca-Cola advertisers — the inspiration for the jolly fellow in the red suit.
Myers maintains a deft balance of talking heads and verite sequences, so that, at 93 minutes, the docu feels neither rushed nor dawdling, and remains consistently amusing and engaging. To be sure, it may be too long for very small children. But then again, most parents might not want to expose their little ones to a pic that reveals so much about the Santa mythos.
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Early scenes chart Sanderson’s progress as he has his hair and beard dyed bright white, chooses a design for a custom-fitted suit at a Hollywood costume shop and jets off to Denver for a few days of intensive training at the American Events Santa School taught by the wise and wisecracking Susen Mesco.
Under Mesco’s gently demanding tutelage, Sanderson masters such tricks of the trade as coping with restless and/or bawling toddlers, and diplomatically handling difficult requests from children who want more than mere toys. (Some want jobs for unemployed parents; others want separated parents to reunite.) After that, he’s ready for a full schedule that includes riding aboard a firetruck for a Christmas parade in Quincy, Mass.; ringing a bell and soliciting donations for the Volunteers of America on a very cold day in Manhattan; and maintaining his Santa-esque effervescence for six hours while greeting dozens of children aboard the Susquehanna Polar Express.
Sanderson, who serves as narrator and is credited as the pic’s writer, occasionally offers a not-entirely-jokey comment about the more demanding aspects of his job (“Santa can tell you — childhood obesity is an epidemic in this country”). Much more often than not, however, he looks and sounds very much like someone who’s having the time of his life.
His enthusiasm is shared by other interviewees, some of whom — ranging from landscapers to postal employees to Civil War historians — have been playing Santa for several decades. Indeed, it’s such a fun gig that at least two of the Santas admit to experiencing a kind of post-Christmas depression when the holiday season ends.
Sanderson indicates at the start of “Becoming Santa” that he intended his stint as St. Nick as a one-season-only adventure, partly as a way of coping with the recent death of his father. But the final scenes suggest ho-ho-hoing during the holidays is a hard habit to break.
Fine production values across the board doubtless will enhance the pic’s value as a theatrical offering.