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(Catch-up week continues on HtN with an excellent review of Charles Poekel’s sneakily great Christmas, Again. The film is available now in some theaters and via VOD through the fine folks at Factory 25.)

Rays of light striking the camera lens are refracted, change direction, and then made new and different. Bring the camera close and rack the image out of focus, and we’ll never be sure what we’re looking at. Such is the power of cinema, that the camera directs our gaze in ways sometimes abstract, hiding the context of the image to control the story. We only see what the director wants us to see. S/he is the god of the universe of the particular movie we choose to watch.

Christmas, Again – the first narrative feature from filmmaker Charles Poekel (one of the cinematographer’s on Douglas Tirola’s terrific Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon) – opens with blurry colored triangles floating in the dark. Wait, they’re not exactly triangles; more like diamonds. Mozart’s choral motet “Ave verum corpus” plays on the soundtrack. It’s beautiful, but doesn’t help with placing the images in time or place. Ah, there’s a tree, being tied to the roof of a car; there’s money being counted in someone’s hand. Looks like Brooklyn. OK, got it: it’s Christmas time (the title helps), and we’re watching a Christmas tree salesman ply his wares.

The series of close-ups that begin the film set the pattern for how the story proceeds. We may be in an enormous city here, but we’re dealing with small – almost mundane – quotidian details. Our attention is directed squarely at our protagonist, who is as out of sorts at the start as those decorative Christmas lights are out of focus. Who is he? His name is Noel (pronounced like Noel Coward, rather than “The First Nowell”), and he is the least happy peddler you could ever hope to meet, with none of the spirit that his moniker implies. The tragedy of a recent breakup is written not only on his face, but on his entire bearing. We hope this will be a tale with tidings of great joy, because he looks like he could use some good news.

But this is not to be exactly that, though we are in for an engagingly unorthodox take on the Yuletide season, that offers plenty of other delights. As played by a wonderfully restrained Kentucker Audley (Sun Don’t Shine), Noel has two challenges ahead: sell enough Christmas trees to keep his boss happy, and get through the next few weeks without giving into depression. As we watch him manage a junior colleague and his girlfriend, alternating night and day shifts, we learn – without it feeling like exposition – the facts of this obscure trade. It’s tough and grueling, and when Noel isn’t sleeping in the trailer that is their home base, he’s swimming laps at the Y or taking walks through the city. If this seems like it’s boring so far, it’s not. Out of great specificity come universal truths, and we feel, watching Noel, the stage being set for some big change to happen. It’s a Christmas movie, right?

One night, chasing a tree thief, Noel comes across Lydia (Hannah Gross, I Used to Be Darker), stone drunk on a park bench. He helps her back to the trailer, and though she leaves in the morning, she is soon back with an offer of thanks. Maybe she’s the one to kick Noel out of his funk. Maybe.

What is so lovely about Poekel’s film – other than the careful contemplation of small details and the terrific performances – is how he keeps on surprising us with unexpected plot turns. It’s fresh and invigorating, helped along by the beautiful cinematography of Sean Price Willams (Listen Up Philip) and finely tuned editing of Robert Greene (7 Chinese Brothers). You’ll never know what’s coming next, and that is the greatest Christmas gift of all.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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