By Katie Walsh | katiewalshwrites.com December 5, 2013 at 4:07PM
The latest film from writer/director Zach Clark is the oddball unconventional Christmas dramedy (?) “White Reindeer,” starring Anna Margaret Hollyman as Suzanne, who’s just having one hell of a shitty December. Suzanne is a real estate agent in Virginia with a happy marriage to a local weatherman. His tragic death sets her off into a spiral of grief, manifesting itself in all manner of strange and uncharacteristic ways. That premise could be the basis for a rich story of personal growth and journeying through life’s ups and downs, but instead “White Reindeer” sort of just grinds to a halt and idles in the wild ways Suzanne deals with her husband’s death.
It seems spoiler-y to mention, but one of the main aspects of the story is that Suzanne is informed her husband was having an affair with a black stripper named Autumn (real name Fantasia), who she seeks out, and this relationship forms the crux of the film. Her friendship with Autumn/Fantasia (Laura Lemar-Goldsborough) allows her to get outside of her own life for a minute, embracing a dark underground life of sex and dive bars and drugs. This notion of a frigid white yuppie using a lower class woman of color to find freedom or liberation or whatever, would be problematic, but Clark makes an honest effort at coloring in Autumn/Fantasia’s backstory, though it’s shaded in strokes that are too broad and border on stereotype, and her story isn’t fully executed. She doesn’t seem like a real person, but instead like a very useful person for this story.
Hollyman, as the shocked and mourning Suzanne, sort of wanders through the film with a blank expression; unsure of who she is or how to act in every new scenario in which she finds herself. She’s either self-medicating with manic consumption of Christmas related products or with booze or drugs or sex. There’s a lot of sex in this movie, from Suzanne watching porn to politely participating in a swinger party, to the exposed bodies of the women of color who populate the strip club. It seems at times like there’s an attempt to wring some humor from the cognitive dissonance of a preppy, proper white lady in these environments, but if it’s supposed to be funny, it’s not. And after all the sucking and fucking, there just really seems to be no point to it all in the end. Has it helped her learn something new? Does she feel differently about herself or her relationship or intimacy? Does she feel like she got even her dead husband for cheating? It’s never clear.
Ultimately, Suzanne is done the most disservice in terms of her story and experience with grief while she attempts to connect with those who surround her. She isn’t just using them as a respite from her grief, as she helps out Autumn/Fantasia in a time of need (she also gifts her all of her Christmas junk). There’s also some beach daydreaming, an allusion to her dashed dreams of a future in Hawaii with her husband, which goes nowhere and does nothing for the story. Hollyman is eminently watchable on screen, and a compelling actress, but as Suzanne, she’s either operating at numb or manic and the performance doesn’t feel well-rounded or realistic.
There’s a slow and measured (sometimes stilted) pace to the editing (also done by Clark) that is juxtaposed with near-seizure inducing montage during her partying moments. Its deadpan delivery lulls you into a stupor like Suzanne’s and then ratchets up to her stimulant-fuelled level. It brings us closer to her subjective experience, but it’s uneven and sometimes distracting. The cinematography and production design renders everything a desaturated and sad winter gray.
“White Reindeer” is compelling in many ways. It throws a lot at Suzanne and a lot at the viewer, and invites you to figure out just what this grieving, befuddled, and unpredictable woman is going to do. Unfortunately though, her story isn’t fully rendered or realistic, playing the same note for too long. She isn’t offered much personal growth, and there’s not much reason to root for her or truly empathize with her, often due to the deadpan tone of the piece. An unprecedented take on the holiday film, but not an entirely successful one. [C+]