It’s December. It’s cold. Red, green, and blue bulbs glow over a small Christmas tree stand. There resides Noel (Kentucker Audley), soft-spoken and swimming in flannel. He sells trees, adorns wreaths, and mingles with a rotating cast of New York locals. “Christmas sucks,” one mutters, and Noel doesn’t argue. It ain’t what it used to be, that’s for sure.
Noel’s been selling Christmas trees in this spot for five years now, but something’s different this year. “That sign’s new,” he observes of his surroundings. “They paved the road, never thought they’d do that.” But it’s Noel, not New York, that’s changed. He’s newly single and, as such, left without his longtime crew. Instead, he’s saddled with a pair of slackers (Jason Shelton and Oona Roche) and the aching weight of memories that accompanies not just this spot, but the holidays themselves. In pouring rain and drifting snow, Noel sulks behind his beard, speaking in monosyllables as he sells trees to yuppies, scumbags, and healthy, happy families. One night, however, he stumbles upon Lydia (Hannah Gross), passed out on a park bench. He gives her refuge for the night, and, as Christmas looms closer, she weaves in and out of his life.
A character study first and foremost, Christmas, Again drifts through these moments with the urgency of a falling snowflake. Writer-director Charles Poekel’s camera moves with a similar grace, deftly capturing the tiny details – swinging strings of lights, a busted screen door, the smile of a child carrying his own tiny tree – as they unfold around Noel. Noel’s routine is equally nuanced – Poekel sold trees himself, and the detail he brings to the job’s duties are gripping in their specificity – whether he’s slotting holly into a wreath, swimming at the Y, or popping pills he keeps in an advent calendar. Poekel and Audley keep exposition to a minimum, allowing the truth behind Noel’s breakup to emerge organically, in the weight of an object or his reaction to a beaming couple. It’s elegant filmmaking, seamless in its storytelling.
Audley’s performance is both aloof and assured, well-rounded enough to ensure the warmth that eventually emerges from behind his gruff exterior feels not like an anomaly, but rather a wounded animal that’s taking a chance on a world it doesn’t trust. We never learn much about Noel’s breakup or family or life outside of December, but he still feels like a fully formed character thanks to Audley’s soulfulness and the little things Poekel plants in his orbit. Gross also finds a great deal of honesty in her few scenes, affirming herself as much more than a Manic Pixie Dream Girl sent to help this sad man have a happy holiday. Her life seems light years more complicated than his; if anything, she sees him as an escape from the hell that is her holidays.
Though it runs just 78 minutes, Christmas, Again still feels a touch too long and, as such, maybe overplays its hand a bit. Though we’re given an admirably realistic resolution, I couldn’t help but wish for a touch more ambiguity, a reflection of the amorphousness of Noel’s transition into an unsure future. Focus shifts slightly in the movie’s final moments, which feels jarring in a film that’s centered so tightly around one man’s journey.
Despite its melancholy aura, however, Christmas, Again still manages to paint the holidays as a magical time. New York may be gloomy here, but the image of Noel standing against some traditional colored bulbs should make anyone nostalgic for the childlike wonder that always accompanied Christmas. A third act trip to drop off and set up trees on Christmas Eve delivers even more glad tidings; during this sequence, we’re treated to scenes that find New York’s young and old finding delight in nothing more simple than a 6’ balsam fir. Because, ultimately, Christmas, Again is about finding joy in the simple things after years of living with complicated ones. To have a happy Christmas, sometimes all you need is a gift and the warmth of a companion well met.