Heath Davis’ Christmess is the Major Miracle Independent Australian Cinema Needs

There is a certain absurdity about celebrating Christmas in Australia with all the Northern Hemisphere trimmings. It’s hot. People are exhausted. Roasting a turkey on a day where the temperature can be anything from 30 to 40 degrees centigrade is wilfully masochistic. Dressing up as Santa in a heavy suit is probably hell for anyone who has to do it. Singing about dashing through the snow makes no sense. Almost all the traditions are imported, so what makes Christmas the festive season in Australia. The answer, for good or not, is family and friends. But what if you have blown up your life so spectacularly that you don’t have either?

A once famous actor and addict Chris Flint (Steve Le Marquand) is leaving rehab in December. He has no illusions about how epically he has fucked up everything but he’s mostly disappointed about his fall from grace as a star. Friends and admirers are gone. Even his agent who is supposed to be his ride to the half-way house he will be occupying in outer suburban Sydney has bailed on him meaning he has to take the long trek via train and walking through streets where the spirit of Christmas is mostly present through faded posters and past their prime shopping malls.

Arriving at the run-down council house that will be his home for the foreseeable future he meets Joy (Hannah Joy), an effervescent, sarcastic, no bullshit, aspiring singer-songwriter who is a bit further down the recovery path than Chris. He also meets his sponsor, Nick (Darren Gilshenan) a man with years of experience for whom faith is an anchor. They are both welcoming to Chris but they also both point out that if he breaks the rules or doesn’t pull his weight, he’s out.

Chris is not yet a month sober and this is the longest he’s managed in years. Finding a job as a mall Santa is a huge step down for a Silver Logie winner, but he’s quietly grateful even if his suit does stink of piss and he can’t manage a smile for the kids who sit on his lap. For Joy having a Santa in the house is the first time she’s even had a photo with the man with her parents both being “deadbeats” who offered her nothing in the way of support and education. After a couple of days on the job he sees a face he didn’t think he ever would again; his daughter Noelle (Nicole Pastor) who is with her young son Jackson. They lock eyes and both flee in different directions. Chris, of course, flees to the bottle shop where he calls Nick.

If Christmas movies and narratives have taught us anything it is that Christmas is a time for reconciliation and forgiving (although one could argue the reality is more a time of putting up with relatives you do not want to see, enforced merriment, and interminable conversations you would rather drink yourself into oblivion to avoid – but that is the Grinch speaking). Nick and especially Joy start giving Chris the idea that maybe there is some hope for reconnecting with the daughter he abandoned twenty years ago when she was just seven. Chris doubts it, but what if there is a possibility? Soon Chris, a man who was taking everything one day at a time without an outline of what the future could bring, just the memories of the missteps of the past, begins to believe that maybe he has a chance to heal and make amends.

Australian director and writer Heath Davis is a genius when it comes to everyman cinema. From his gambling drama Broke about a fallen ex-football player, through to the “pissed everything up a wall,” Chris; Davis has a deep level of empathy with his characters. He’s unafraid to show you the consequences of self-destruction but he also reminds us that breaking bad habits is not as easy as wishing them away or even a matter of meeting new people who will support and nurture you. Life is not simple and even when someone is doing their best disappointment can be just around the corner. The question is whether it breaks you.

Davis is also working on extremely tight budgets, so script and performances are foremost. That isn’t to say that Chris Bland’s cinematography is lacking (far from it), or Matt Sladen’s music isn’t wonderful. What it does highlight is what a deliberate and brilliant writer (and director) Davis is. He gets the absolute best out of his performers. His regular collaborator Steve Le Marquand gives such a powerful, funny, and melancholy performance as Chris. Industry veteran Daniel Gilshenan is gentle, encouraging, harsh and fair as Nick – a man living with guilt and grief. First time actor Hannah Joy (from the band Middle Kids) is a delight and when she sings you feel the truth spilling out in a way that is authentic and often deeply sad. Nicole Pastor is great in her limited screen time as the deeply hurt daughter Noelle (if there are any qualms about the film it is that it could have done with more of her onscreen).

Christmess is painful, hopeful, gentle, and funny as hell. We can find new and old families and still mess up. Maybe messing up is part of the ongoing process of life and one thing Chris finds is that there is an ongoing process. “The truth is liberating and painful,” Joy tells Chris. Maybe Christmas isn’t the time he will find forgiveness and make amends but at least he sees that there is a path toward a time where he won’t be the only actor in his drama, but willing to share the stage with those he has hurt. Learning his career disappointments are just background noise to something more substantial is somewhat of a small miracle.

Australia puts out a few Christmas films and they rarely work particularly well. There are exceptions such as A Sunburnt Christmas and Wake in Fright (although remembering that it is a Christmas film is not high on anyone’s radar when thinking about the work). In terms of Christmas classics, one could be hard pressed to come up with a long list. However, Heath Davis has not only made one of the best Australian films about Christmas, he’s made one of the best films about Christmas in recent cinema. Christmess is the major miracle independent Australian cinema needs.

Director: Heath Davis

Cast: Steve Le Marquand, Darren Gilshenan, Hannah Joy

Writer: Heath Davis

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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