Charles Poekel‘s feature-length directorial debut, "Christmas, Again," is practically whispercore, full of blinky Christmas lights and the sort of weird quiet that descends on the streets of New York City in the middle of a December night. Noel (Kentucker Audley) travels down to the city every year from upstate New York to sell Christmas trees to locals, and as we gather from the people who greet him with some familiarity, he used to come with a girlfriend who’s no longer around.
For the most part, Noel keeps this sadness to himself; he works the night shift and sleeps during the day in a trailer parked next to the trees, and bickers with the folks who work the day shift. He occasionally goes for a swim and a shower at the local Y. And, maybe most importantly, he carefully pries one pill out of an Advent calendar every night. His interactions with other humans are generally pretty empty, until one night he finds a beautiful young woman passed out drunk on a park bench. He rescues her cell phone from the drunk homeless man next to her, and brings the woman to his trailer to sleep it off. This kicks off a listless back and forth between Noel and Lydia (Hannah Gross), who comes with her own baggage but doesn’t quite reach the hysterical heights of your typical magical female catalyst. Of course, Lydia’s appearance does somehow set in motion a series of small changes in Noel’s life, but in the end, she’s too slippery to grasp for both Noel and the viewer.
Gross isn’t given much to do other than appear occasionally and stir up some fairly low-key drama. Audley carries the picture, and he does a fine job with what he’s given; with his beard and beanie and puffy coat, he passes for an outdoorsy working dude, the kind you’d walk by on the street without a second thought. Audley’s mutability works in his favor; it’s hard to realize he’s the same guy who plays a slick hipster travelling to a creepy Jamestown-like commune in "The Sacrament." As Noel, his face is expressive and readable, he’s eternally patient with even the wishy-washiest customers, and when he breaks out into a smile, it’s sincere and it spreads.
Not much happens in the film, and not much is supposed to happen. Poekel and cinematographer Sean Price Williams ("Listen Up Philip," "The Color Wheel") do a grand job of capturing the sleepy, hazy feeling of a late night when it seems like you’re the only person left in New York City. The use of old Christmas tunes and the occasional theremin adds to the film’s wistfulness.
It’s also an interesting portrait of the different ways people celebrate; Noel has to deliver trees to a home for senior citizens, to a cheery family, and to a packed house party in Brooklyn. "Christmas, Again" stops just short of being maudlin or trying to make the viewer feel sorry for Noel, who can also be a little bit of a jerk.
As one character plainly puts it, "Christmas sucks." For Noel, it’s not so much that Christmas sucks as that it’s just there as another yearly gig where he sells trees to people who have dumb questions and annoying Bluetooth conversations while asking him to pose with the trees for size reference. The title is a groan, and it’s one many of us relate to. That said, the movie’s pace feels more like a plod, less deliberate than simply unsure of itself. "Christmas, Again" is a quiet film, but one that could perhaps use a bit more buzz of the holiday season. [B-]