24 March, 2015

ATLFF Reviews: "Christmas, Again" (****) & "Funny Bunny" (***)

Kentucker Audley stars in "Christmas, Again." 

“Christmas, Again,” written and directed by Charles Poekel, is so subtle a film that it runs the risk of being periphery. It’s a piece so quiet and observational that it doesn’t require (nor does it want) a spotlight; it’s not flashy or loud or jokey. It doesn’t demand the viewers attention by being conventional and melodramatic and lurid. “Christmas, Again,” does just the opposite, in fact… it elevates honesty and character and successfully captures what it means to be lonely. 

Despite the quiet and hushed tenor of “Christmas, Again,” Kentucker Audley, who plays the film’s central character, Noel, won’t let you look away. He’s the steady, unrelenting heartbeat of this film, and his performance is so small and toned and thoughtful. He looks like a more handsome version of Martin Freeman and performs and acts in a way that, to me, really resonates with an extremely versatile actor like Ryan Gosling… but, like, Ryan Gosling when he’s doing his best kind of work- quirky, character-driven independent dramas. 

In “Christmas, Again,” Noel works as a Christmas tree salesman in New York City, and much of the film is Noel trudging through the daily grind. Christmas spirit is very different for those folks who are working to manufacture the seasonal spirit. Noel  is quiet and unsmiling and unflinching, though we do get brief moments of warmth from him. When walking through the park, he takes a passed-out drunk woman back to his trailer to sleep it off so she doesn’t freeze to death. She becomes a part of Noel’s story, as does her angry boyfriend, but “Christmas, Again” doesn’t fall into predictability or conventionality with this subplot. It could easily become a story where the guy saves the girl and the girl falls in love with the guy and they live happily ever after. This film doesn’t do that; it doesn’t promise happiness, it doesn’t promise love… that’s not what this story is about. It’s about Noel and loneliness and rediscovery and what it really means to be alive. 

When I discovered that Kentucker Audley was starring in another 2015 Atlanta Film Festival film, I couldn’t help but squeal with delight. Within the first five minutes of Alison Bagnall’s “Funny Bunny,” Audley speaks more words than he did during the entirety of “Christmas, Again.” Though his performance is equally controlled and measured and thoughtful, “Funny Bunny” allows Audley to be more vocal and nuanced and visibly textured as he dives deep into the character of Gene. Gene is an unconventional sort of guy. We meet him in the middle of his door-to-door pitch on the dangers of childhood obesity, where despite his affable persistence, doors are constantly being slammed in his face. That night he returns to his ex-wife’s house, where he’s been sleeping on her couch, only to find he’s no longer welcome there. And as fate would have it, Gene finds himself at Titty’s door. Titty (Olly Alexander) is a young man living all alone in a mansion, and Gene, alone and homeless, strikes up an unlikely friendship with Titty. Together they go searching for Ginger (Joslyn Jensen), a woman with a YouTube channel and with whom Titty’s fallen in virtual love. From there, chaos and emotional strife and friendship ensue. 

Joslyn Jensen and Kentucker Audley star in "Funny Bunny."
If “Christmas, Again” can be criticized for being too quiet, I think “Funny Bunny” runs the risk of being too loud. “Funny Bunny” is a bold film; it’s sharp and opinionated and vocal. There’s a very overt political agenda here about the nature of factory farming, and though I think the commentary is necessary about the subject itself, I don’t think it fits within this framework. And I think the same notion can be applied to Gene’s preaching about childhood obesity at the beginning of the film. I’m sure that’s an intentional choice: evidencing that we live in a generation chock-full of people desperate to believe in something, but I don’t think that idea or notion is as effective using those two plot lines as its yelling points as it could be in another, more subtle, integrated way. There is, however, a wonderful subplot about the affected way people interact because of the isolating and self-censoring nature of technology, and this actually creates a really nice foundation on which this film can be built; the idea that people aren’t who they present themselves to be and that, rarely, does reality match with expectation or imagination. 

The tone and tenor of this film was slightly displaced for me; it felt very uneven. It went from light to dark to darker back to light for reasons that were inconsistent with the trajectories of the characters. What I did admire about this film, however, was the simple and sheer earnestness of it. The characters themselves are so tinged and eccentric that, on paper, they could look like caricatures of themselves or spoofs on ‘real’ people, but they’re just so, so earnest. And they’re trying, desperately and at times unsuccessfully, to navigate the waters of their lives; and that, to me, was the most lovely and wonderful part of “Funny Bunny.” It’s a film chock-full of broken people who are doing their best despite themselves.

I’d recommend seeing both “Christmas, Again” and “Funny Bunny,” but when t comes down to it, I’d really try to make it to “Christmas, Again.”

"Funny Bunny"—3 out of 5 stars.
"Christmas, Again"—4 out of 5 stars.

Both films screened with the Atlanta Film Festival, on March 21st and March 22nd respectively.

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