A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
One of the most important challenges for a director (along with the cinematographer and editor of any given film) is to create the proper mood for the story. Mood may be more important than words, because words come out of—or are contextualized by—mood. Mood is ephemeral, but it helps establish point of view and orients us in the dream-space of the film. With all of the things that "Christmas, Again" (written and directed by Charles Poekel in his feature debut) does well (and it does almost everything well), the most striking thing about it is its evocation of an extremely specific mood. Once we settle into it, and it happens early, everything else becomes possible.
The lead character of "Christmas, Again" is named Noel (Kentucker Audley)—too cutesy a name to be believed, but it's skipped over like a pebble jumping across a pond. Noel spends most of his year working construction "upstate" but every Christmas time, he is one of those guys you see on almost every corner in New York, selling Christmas trees (plus wreaths, stands and lights). It's seasonal work, and post-Christmas, those guys vanish suddenly and then re-appear the next year. Poekel himself worked this seasonal job, and the film is great in showing how it all operates. Noel works the night-shift and oversees his two day-shift workers.
And that's pretty much it, in terms of plot. Things do happen: Noel is annoyed at the lackadaisical attitude of his underlings ("Nick, you gotta be better at sweeping up the needles, man..."), goes every day to swim and shower at a nearby YMCA, buys Lotto tickets. Noel is quiet, but not apathetic about his job: he is ambitious to sell as many trees as possible. People who recognize him ask if "Marianna" is with him, and he replies, "Not this year" without elaborating. Maybe she's an ex-girlfriend. It's not clear. Maybe they worked the Christmas season together and he had a crush on her and that's as far as it went. (That somehow seems more likely. He seems like an unrequited kind of guy.)
None of these events are highlighted in a way that telegraphs "Here is the plot." "Christmas, Again" asks us to submit to the mood because that is where the profundity and emotion exists. New York is narrowed down to one corner, but on that corner a bustling diverse life occurs. Cinematographer Sean Price Williams, who helped shoot Albert Maysles' "Iris," and also shot indie hit "Listen Up Philip", often blurs out the background, fuzzed-out colored strings of lights filling up the space behind people's faces. The light is harsh in the morning, and dark blue at night. You can feel how cold it is.