“Christmas, Again” isn’t so much A Day In The Life Of as it is A Few Weeks In The Life Of – that is, a few weeks in the life of Noel (Kentucker Audley), a name which is about as on the nose as this impressive slice of Navidad Neo-Realism gets. Otherwise, writer/director Charles Poekel’s film remains contentedly low-key, keeping itself almost exclusively in the presence of its melancholic main character spending his December living on a Christmas tree lot in New York City, selling Balsam Firs and Douglas Firs to passerby. Filmed in 16mm, cinematographer Sean Price Williams keeps events close to the cramped lot, pointedly refusing to linger in random lovely images of New York City during the holiday season. The closest it gets is a shot of the Empire State Building’s tippy-top just barely appearing behind a few monotone buildings in the foreground, as if all the action typical of city living is kept hidden off screen.
Most of Noel’s sales opportunities are presented as modest comic pieces – a guy photographs various trees with his iPhone, reporting back to his wife, and another woman wants, specifically, “the Obama tree.” Nothing much comes of these sales other than $60 or $70, just as nothing much comes from Noel’s interactions with the day shift couple, a pair with whom he’s a little exasperated but never quite outright angry. Drama continually beckons, but never arrives. Noel’s boss shows up, pushes him harder to make sales, and that’s pretty much the end of it. A late Christmas tree delivery to some sort of December 24th cocktail party finds Noel venturing deeper and deeper into the apartment, where natural instinct tells us that danger must lurk, though none makes itself apparent.
No, the drama, what little there is, remains internalized, glimpsed in the way Noel opens doors on an Advent calendar, counting down the days, eating the tiny piece of chocolate but then washing it down with gulp of water, like he’s taking his pills, like this is an ordeal rather than festive. As the title implies, this is not his first time as an evergreen salesman. Indeed, it his fifth year, and it shows in the sameness of the sequences, identically curt if polite interactions, a repetition that Poekel very much makes the point, one man on an endless job of which he appears to be tiring. Lydia (Hannah Gross) wonders if this must be quite the life, spreading Christmas cheer, living in a kind of Santa shantytown, but Noel doesn’t really need to say anything to let you know he doesn’t view it that way; the emergent, palpable grind becomes part of the point.
Oh. Sorry. I just dropped Lydia’s name there in the middle of the review. But then, that’s essentially how she appears in the movie, passed out on a park bench, rescued, kind of, by Noel, and then disappearing and re-appearing in his life. She has a boyfriend who comes around a couple times, turmoil again simmering before dying back down. She becomes the counterpoint to the picture on the wall of Noel’s ex-girlfriend, the one who worked with him last year and returning customers keep asking about. We never learn what happened to her, just as we never quite learn who Lydia is.
But backstory is never quite the point. Lydia easily could have become some sort of Dickens-ish ghost, of the present or perhaps even of the future, but “Christmas, Again” prefers to simply linger in the all-important connection of the moment. And in her little screen time Gross evinces someone quietly opening up to the ineffable magic of the season, a yuletide alchemy in which the film ultimately believes despite its down-to-earth aesthetics. To thank Noel for rescuing her from her park bench stupor, Lydia brings him a pie. In another movie that might have been a conduit to romance, but here it is just a simple gesture of kindness, and rather than hammering home the holiday spirit with sermons and grand coincidences and carols, “Christmas, Again” believes that’s more than enough.