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‘Christmas Again’ is this week’s Sleeper of the Week

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Charles Poekel’s feature debut “Christmas, Again” follows Noel (Kentucker Adley), a melancholy New York Christmas tree vendor during the holiday season, in a mood piece that pays attention to the minutiae. Because he recently broke up with his fiancée, he’s completing the work alone for the first time, but we never learn why. “Christmas, Again” stands out from the others because Poekel concentrates solely on Noel’s loneliness over the holiday season.

‘Christmas Again’ is this week’s Sleeper of the Week

“Christmas, Again,” a depressing look at the holiday season, explores what makes Christmas such a dismal holiday and how the coldest evenings may remind you the most of how genuinely, completely alone you are. The sombre, observant drama about a Christmas-tree vendor named Noel (Kentucker Audley) on duty in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, is developed from the meticulous accumulation of seductive details by Charles Poekel. Independent-scene powerhouses Audley, Hannah Gross and Dakota Goldhor, cinematographer Sean Price Williams, and editor Robert Greene infuse the film with aestheticized spontaneity — a blend of observational detail and theatrical creativity. Noel, who is grieving over a breakup, works the night shift. The demands of his demanding boss, the strains of managing his novice associate (Jason Shelton), and the upside-down hours (Bennett Webster), His nerves are frayed by his restless sleeps in a confined trailer. Noel’s good act becomes a burden when he saves an inebriated young woman (Gross) from the nighttime chill. Poekel focuses on work relationships’ power struggles as well as the salesman’s very personal, one-sided glances into his customers’ life. The yearning performances, as well as the impressionistic handheld photos, reveal the hard-won consolation of seasonal sentiment.

However, this is a film about the creative process, atmosphere, pacing, and even suspense. (Any unsold trees will be paid for by Noel.) Charles Poekel, the writer and director, a cinematographer making his feature directorial debut, opened his own stand, mainly for research. “Christmas, Again,” as the title suggests, is about how the holidays can be a time of lonely resignation for certain people. (With his green winter jacket on, Noel appears to be ready to blend in with his stuff.) Sean Price Williams, the cinematographer, uses 16-millimeter film to create a film with wintry colours and noticeable grain. This is a Christmas film in which magic is mostly on the outskirts, and it’s the perfect balance of frigid and sweet. The temptation to make Noel an outright sad sack in order to gain sympathy from the audience must have been strong, but Audley mainly avoids, painting a portrait of a man doing his best to avoid unpleasant feelings by focusing on the task at hand. (It’s easy to tell that “Christmas, Again” is based on actual experience when Noel huddles up close to a space heater in his trailer or tries to find the person who ordered the tree in the middle of a crowded house party.)

Instead, Poekel creates a melancholy mood by juxtaposing Noel’s professional stoicism with the warmth radiated by various happy couples shopping for a tree, working with cinematographer Sean Price Williams (“Listen Up Philip,” “Heaven Knows What”) and editor Robert Greene (director of last year’s “Actress”). Most of the smaller characters are only seen once, but they leave an impact, and Audley manages to conjure up a churning sea of suppressed emotion without revealing Noel’s envy and longing. Each brief encounter only serves to emphasise how alone he is, making Lydia — despite her being a complete stranger — appear all the more significant. The film’s attractiveness stems from its moments of spontaneous naturalism: tiny observations about how people behave, mixed with details and incidents that Poekel himself lived during his years operating McGrolick Trees, the same stand where the film was shot. Most people would term this approach “research,” but Poekel calls it “method writing.” From the way Noel wraps and prepares the trees for sale to the night a synthetic blanket catches fire and nearly burns down his caravan, this specificity lends the picture depth, but an almost allergic rejection to hyperbole maintains the experience feeling real rather than syrupy.

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