Steve Le Marquand, Darren Gilshenan, Hannah Joy
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… a solid holiday character piece with a lot of heart and an appreciable lack of artifice.
Aussie auteur Heath Davis (Broke, Book Week) has built a low-key but respectable pedigree for stories about down-on-their-luck ‘big shots’ coping with demons and addiction. And with his latest, it gets a Christmas make-over with a yarn about Chris (Steve Le Marquand), a recovering alcoholic actor living in a halfway house and trying to make ends meet as a mall Santa.
Davis’ knack for natural and identifiably Aussie mannerisms on-screen holds true here, giving a lot of believability and empathy to not only Chris’ journey, but also his relationships with his sponsor Nick (Darren Gilshenan), fellow recovering addict Joy (Hannah Joy of pop band Middle Kids), and his estranged daughter Noelle (Nicole Pastor). If alarm bells are already going off in response to how twee the names of the characters are, know that the film never even glances at the kind of saccharine that implies.
Instead, it focuses on Chris’ road to recovery, just trying to get through the day and get ready for what the next one will bring, even if there are some things that can’t really be prepared for in that fashion. Le Marquand’s performance is stellar, both as the down-to-earth social presence at the centre of the narrative and as the flesh suit for the rattling trauma that led him to the bottle in the first place. The way it approaches this kind of recovery process is in-line with the overall approach to notions of forgiveness, both of others and of ourselves, in that there are no guarantees. There are struggles, there are triggers, there are even breakdowns, but you’d be surprised what you can survive with the right support network. Not necessarily thrive, but on most days, just surviving is more than enough.
Juxtaposing personal and social dysfunction with the Yuletide holiday – which exacerbates neuroses and strained relationships – is a classic trick for Chrissie flicks. However, Christmess wields that familiarity well by wholly embracing the holiday spirit as thematic texture, both the religious appreciation for the arrival of someone who can save us from ourselves, and the more secular inspiration to spread goodwill towards others; even those who have already made their minds up about whether they’ll reciprocate.
The film balances the dourer corners of the character drama, with Chris, Joy, and Nick all dealing with their own demons, with solid everyman humour, like the all-too-recognisable bolt-upright terror that comes with forgetting to take the bins out the night before. Most of the time, it’s just watching the three leads chatting with each other, and through their warm chemistry together, they feel like ol’ mates you’d want to have around for some impromptu Christmas hamburgers.
Christmess is a solid holiday character piece with a lot of heart and an appreciable lack of artifice. It weaves its way through the subversive standard for modern Christmas movies, focusing more on everyday struggles than the imposed mandate that there must be at least one day where we simply must be joyous, and leaves a solid impression as a bit of local colour that lives up to the celebratory but still understated way that we tend to recognise the holiday down here.