SXSW FILM 2013
By Don Simpson | March 22, 2013
Director: Zach Clark
Writer: Zach Clark
Starring: Anna Margaret Hollyman, Laura Lemar-Goldsborough, Lydia Hyslop, Joe Swanberg, Chris Doubek, Marissa Molnar, Fernanda Tapia, Nathan Williams, Yvonne Erickson, Leo Erickson, Melodie Sisk, Sydney Alexander, Ellie Nicoll, Mahoghany Ayot Eerised, Jiyoung Lee, Ayesis Clay
It takes a lot of balls — and not the shiny and colorful kind that typically decorate Christmas trees — to make an independent, low-budget Christmas film. Not only are holiday films a niche market, but they tend to cater to broad mainstream audiences. Subjects like the unexpected loss of a loved one and the resulting depression are not really all that Christmas-y in nature; then again, neither are sexual fetishes, strip clubs and swinger parties. Zach Clark’s White Reindeer offers all of that and much more, in what is probably about as far from a typical holiday film as one could possibly get.
Clark cleverly sets up White Reindeer like a generic, formula-driven Hollywood comedy. Jeff (Nathan Williams) is a weatherman who has just landed a dream job in Hawaii. Being that his wife Suzanne (Anna Margaret Hollyman) is a hardcore Christmas fanatic, it is a bit surprising just how excited she is about their relocation. People do not typically associate Hawaii with Christmas — which is part of the gag — but she takes this opportunity to study the Christmas customs of the region.
Everything seems to be hunky dory between Suzanne and Jeff, but then Clark takes the overtly obvious genre film, turns it on its head and kicks it repeatedly in its fucking gut. Suzanne suddenly finds herself alone in their suburban Virginia home haunted by memories of Jeff. Suzanne, then, grows increasingly troubled by new information about Jeff’s past. Obsessed by the dark details about Jeff’s life, Suzanne ends up befriending a stripper named Fantasia (Laura Lemar-Goldsborough). For better or worse, the two women grieve together and seek escape from their horrible lives with the aid of booze and drugs.
Binge shopping and perpetual inebriation only make matters worse, yet we are never quite sure if Suzanne’s downward spiral might eventually turn into a road to salvation; all we do know is that Suzanne repeatedly puts herself in absurd situations that she would have previously never even dreamed about. For example, the old Suzanne would have probably never attended a swinger party. This particular party includes a sex swing, masks and plenty of naked bodies. The sex party’s gracious host — George (Joe Swanberg) — puts on a perpetually grinning, conservative persona on the outside, but behind closed doors he enjoys a fruitful and varied sex life. No wonder George is always smiling.
Clark’s dark humor and unabashed eroticism run rampant as Suzanne contends with the absence of Jeff. A subversive antidote to the idyllic suburban dream, White Reindeer gets a hell of a lot of mileage out of sight gags in which Clark juxtaposes the gaudy falseness of the holiday season with the harsh reality of deep depression and emotional recovery. This brutal, no-holds-barred reminder of just how sad and lonely the holidays can become also unearths the nasty underbelly of suburban domesticity, where people are not what they appear to be and everyone has deep dark secrets.
It is impossible to go wrong with casting Anna Margaret Hollyman as any film’s lead, especially when the script allows Hollyman to showcase her lusciously comedic and intensely dramatic chops. Suzanne is pretty much the perfect role for Hollyman because she can pull off the young suburban wife like nobody’s business, yet she can also go to some incredibly dark and absurd places with this character. Another example of masterful casting is Joe Swanberg as the host of the swinger party. Ever since Swanberg began directing (and acting in) sexually-provocative films, he has been able to juxtapose his Midwestern good-old-boy-next-door persona with a perversely sexual side. Admittedly, I could not stop laughing every time George appeared on screen, but that is only because Swanberg encapsulates this character so damn well. If I ever attend a swinger party, I dream that it will be hosted by Swanberg. Is that weird?