WHITE REINDEER is a pithy mix of piss-taking and pathos

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Rating: ★★★1/2

A lesser-known name of the mumblecore set, Zach Clark is carving his own niche and managing to move in all the right circles doing it. Getting his start working as an editor for Aaron Katz on Dance Party USAWhite Reindeer, his third effort behind the camera, features a performance by none other than movement overlord Joe Swanberg, starring as a kinky suburbanite who can’t wait till Christmas to use his fantasy sex swing.

Clark’s previous films, Modern Love is Automatic and Vacation! played like Spring Breakers on a budget, a blend of puked up pastel colours, ironised ennui, camp nihilism and kinky kitsch. Easy to accuse of being somewhat callous exercises in hipster alienation, with the viewer more inclined to laugh at characters than with them, White Reindeer sees Clark expanding his sensitivity without compromising his biting brand of black comedy.

Suzanne (Anna Margaret Hollyman) is a real estate agent full of Yuletide cheer, and for good reason this year. Christmas has come early for her and her Weatherman husband, with news that Jeff (Nathan Williams) has landed a meteorologist position in Hawaii. All set to enjoy the festivities of their last holiday season in suburban Virginia, Suzanne’s life takes a turn for the worst when Jeff is killed during a break-in at their home – this on the very same day that she sells a house to a couple moving into her neighbourhood, assuring them that recent reports of increased crime in the area are nothing to worry about.

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A superficial smile similar to the one Suzanne ably employs to sell homes is plastered on the faces of mourners at Jeff’s funeral. Her colleagues suddenly feel the need to act like friends rather than co-workers and their offers to come over and “read the refrigerator” are screechingly stilted and forced. When those same smiles appear at her door weeks later, offering any assistance she might need in selling this “big beautiful home,” their brazen vulturism, and its pretence of sympathizing with Suzanne’s widowed loneliness, is acidic enough to recall the fake friend bile of Heathers. Even Suzanne’s family members prey upon her grief; her sister Greta referring to Jeff as a “local treasure” putting special emphasis on his small-time end.

The day ends with Jeff’s best friend confessing to Suzanne that the two of them once went to a gentleman’s club, where Jeff started a seven-month affair with a stripper. Searching through his internet history and emails for this sex worker’s whereabouts, Suzanne soon discovers her late husband’s penchant for “Chocolate teens.” Determined not to let these salacious secrets completely ruin her holiday, she racks up a $5000 tab on Santa, suffocating her house in Christmas paraphernalia. Tis the season to be jolly, but no matter how much she spends, Suzanne can’t get into the holiday spirit.

On a whim, she ventures over to the Crystal City Lounge to find the other woman. But instead of a confrontation with Fantasia (Laura Lemar-Goldsborough), these two women from very different worlds form an unlikely friendship through their shared grief. Cutting loose and wading right into a lifestyle of hard drinking, snorting lines in punk clubs and going on a shoplifting spree, Suzanne subdues her suburban malaise by venturing right into its seedy underbelly. She might do enough drugs to turn Rudolph’s nose white, but every time she  does a bump of ‘White Reindeer’, the accompanying “zap” of a defibrillator is the sound of her wrecked life pumping blood once more. By the time she finds herself at the house party of the polyamorous couple she sold to, this latest misadventure feels like the most ordinary thing in the world. Clark’s ability to present alternative worlds in a manner that normalises their activities has always been the most appealing aspect of his work, and he sets Joe Swanberg up as a scene stealer here, his corn-fed features too wholesome to be trusted, a dirty twinkle in his eye hinting at all manner of perversities.

Invariably, Christmastime dramedys are malcontent mope fests, but in a buoyant central performance, Anna Margaret Hollyman perfectly walks the line between sending her character up and playing Suzanne’s embitterment with genuine sentiment. Her absolute belief that this time of year is the most important may be as naïve as the Nativity, but it’s an endearing hopelessness which remains hopeful by sheer force of will.  Where it would have been so easy for her to play the whole film in a register of glib derision, Suzanne’s admission to Fantasia that Christmas always felt more real to her than Christ, best expresses Clark’s pithy mix of piss-taking and pathos.

First published by Vérité Film Magazine on October 2, 2013

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