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Monday, September 15, 2014

Review: White Reindeer (2013)

* * *

Director: Zach Clark
Starring: Anna Margaret Hollyman, Laura-Lemar Goldsborough

White Reindeer is a film which does a lot with a little, and I mean that quite literally. Made for only about $67,000 (half of which was raised through a Kickstarter campaign, while the rest was paid for out of pocket by the film's producers), the film can hardly be said to show its budget as it looks like a reasonably slick little indie. A dark comedy about grief, identity, and Christmas, White Reindeer is a well crafted character film with enough bold touches to transcend genre tropes. Anchored by a strong performance from Anna Margaret Hollyman, White Reindeer is a solid, albeit fairly low stakes, movie well worth seeking out. Although, despite the fact that it hit theaters in December of last year, it's probably a film best not watched at Christmas.

Hollyman stars as Suzanne Barrington, who not only has perhaps the most WASPy yuppie name this side of Whitey Richblondelady, but also has a life perfectly befitting that name. A successful real estate agent married to a TV weatherman and living in a McMansioned suburb in Washington D.C., things could hardly get better for Suzanne and yet somehow do when her husband Jeff (Nathan Williams) announces that he's been offered a job in Hawaii. They happily begin planning to spend one last Christmas in D.C. and then move to Hawaii in January, and then everything falls apart: Suzanne comes home and finds Jeff dead, the victim of a home invasion gone wrong, and after the funeral a friend of his confesses that Jeff had been having an affair with a stripper named Autumn. Suzanne is stunned by the news and struggles to reconcile her image of Jeff with this revelation (as well as with some of the things she finds on his computer), and deals with her grief by trying to bury it by going on an online shopping spree, by trying to befriend her new neighbors, whom she has deduced are swingers, and by seeking out and trying to befriend Autumn, whose name is actually Fantasia (Laura-Lemar Goldsborough) and whose revelation that her relationship with Jeff was sexual as well as emotional devastates Suzanne.

Despite having to endure the pain of learning that there was a whole other side to Jeff than the one she knew, Suzanne continues to hang out with Fantasia and her friends, indulging with them in nights fueled by alcohol and cocaine, and days spent shoplifting. She becomes closer with Fantasia, meeting her daughter and her mother, and whether she realizes it or not she seems to be trying to carve out a space for herself in the secret life that Jeff enjoyed with Fantasia. Things are going well enough until the rolling party ends up back at Suzanne's house, where she's suddenly hit by the image of Jeff's "other" life right there in the middle of everything which represented their life together and something inside of her snaps. Though she never openly articulates it as such, the film subtly suggests that she suddenly comes to see this interlude of drugs and partying as a mockery of the life she thought she was living, which leads her to push Fantasia and her friends away. Even in their absence, though, she remains rudderless and searching, and eventually ends up at her new neighbors' house warming party/orgy, an experience which ultimately leaves her cold. As Christmas continues to approach, her house becomes overwhelmed with the fruits of her online shopping, her parents announce their separation, and the loneliness of life after Jeff's death seems bottomless, something is going to have to give.

The success of White Reindeer lies largely in its ability to depict the actions of its characters without judgment. It doesn't vilify Fantasia either for her work as a stripper, her drug use, or her having had an affair with Jeff; it depicts her as a young woman burdened with a lot of financial responsibility resulting from having to support her daughter as well as her mother, who is disabled from working, and whose work as a stripper is merely a supplement to her work in retail. It also shows, in brief and quiet ways, that she's mourning the Jeff that she knew and loved just as Suzanne is mourning her own version of Jeff. Instead of reducing Fantasia to her "otherness," the film allows her to be a fully fleshed out person (to a lesser extent, the film can also be said to allow the swinger couple to be more than an easy punchline) who exists for reasons other than to help Suzanne figure out something about herself. For Suzanne, meanwhile, the things she does in the film are not framed as being part of a long fall towards rock bottom, but merely as different ways that she's trying to find herself after having everything she thought she knew about her life ripped out from under her. She isn't just mourning Jeff, she's trying to understand the part of his life that was kept hidden from her and she's trying to find her footing after the sudden disappearance of the things that gave her a sense of security. Her ways of coping aren't necessarily good for her in the long term, but the film doesn't treat her attempts to use sex, drugs, alcohol, or shopping as a temporary band-aid for her pain as a cause for particular concern.

As written and directed by Zach Clark, White Reindeer is a film which nicely balances its dramatic and comedic elements, and uses a subtle touch whether it is functioning in one mode or the other. One of the better examples of the film's subtlety is how it manages to tell the audience everything we need to know about a minor character within the span of about ten seconds when the female anchor of the news team Jeff was a member of shows up at Suzanne's house after the funeral. She's decked out in sunglasses like she's a movie star, which she whips off after waiting half a second to let the effect set in, opens her arms wide and makes Suzanne come to her for the hug, and then simultaneously acknowledges and ignores Suzanne's request that she put her jacket in the bedroom rather than hanging it up in the closet. It's a quick scene, a throw away scene in many respects, but it manages to stuff a whole lot of characterization into a small space. Clark is the writer/director of three other features, none of them particularly well-known, but he has a great deal of confidence and skill as a storyteller. White Reindeer is a solid, entertaining and engaging film demonstrating both Clark's skill as a director and Hollyman's ability to carry a film - but, again, probably don't watch it at Christmas.

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