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Michael Cera in Holiday Film

Michael Cera in Holiday Film

Two features into his filmmaking career, it’s evident that director Tyler Taormina loves faces — though not in the way of Bergman or Cassavetes. Unlike those art house paragons, he doesn’t isolate his characters in order to peer intently into their souls. He collects faces by the dozen and dreams up crowded tableaus.

His debut film, Ham on Rye, presented a mysterious and unsettling teen ritual in which the faces never connected to conventional stories. Five years later, Taormina is still inspired by group dynamics, and he’s still experimenting with the fusion of aesthetics and storytelling, but this time on more familiar terrain. Veering at times into sensory overload as it reconfigures the holiday-gathering template, Christmas Eve in Miller’s Point can feel like a party that refuses to end, one that could have used some judicious streamlining. But it’s a memorably adventurous party, fueled by intense hopefulness, and Taormina’s fondness for the characters is the movie’s beating heart.

Christmas Eve in Miller’s Point

The Bottom Line

Decks the halls with warm, weird and trippy.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors’ Fortnight)
Cast: Matilda Fleming, Francesca Scorsese, Maria Dizzia, Michael Cera, Ben Shenkman, Elsie Fisher, Gregg Turkington, Lev Cameron, Tony Savino, Chris Lazzaro
Director: Tyler Taormina
Screenwriters: Eric Berger, Tyler Taormina

1 hour 47 minutes

Filming in Suffolk County on his native Long Island, with a cast that combines ace character actors and compelling non-pros, Taormina has made a valentine to his Italian American family, set in a fictitious town that’s grounded in everyday tchotchkes and recognizable psychology, but also not quite of this world. This is a place where Santa’s sack of gifts is a bag of discarded bagels, a Roomba and an iguana make memorable appearances, and the useless pair of policemen who patrol the suburban streets like bargain-basement versions of the angels in Wings of Desire might at any second be arrested for impersonating officers of the law.

This is also a story of endings and beginnings, dividing its attentions between the grown-ups’ revelry and worries on the home front and the wild optimism of the teens who sneak away to joyride and shoot the shit and dream. There’s also a boatload of adorable kiddos who aren’t called upon to “play cute.” The screenplay by Taormina and Eric Berger deals in rather generic storylines without dragging them through the formulaic beats of explosion and resolution.

The helmer and DP Carson Lund (who’s a fellow member of the filmmaking collective Omnes, and whose debut feature, Eephus, will also premiere in Cannes this year) conjure a kaleidoscopic view of Christmastime. Music supervisors Ollie White and Tom Stanford have put together a soundtrack bursting with old-school cuts (The Ronettes, Sinatra, Bay City Rollers) that evoke the holidays without being on-the-nose Christmas standards. Paris Peterson’s production design puts real-life families’ décor to evocative use, and the costumes, by Kimberly Odenthal, are a smart mix of parental celebratory and rebellious teen whatever.

To the buoyant ’60s pop of Ricky Nelson’s “Fools Rush In,” the film opens with a rush of upside-down Christmas lights, a kid’s POV through the rear windshield of a moving car. The kid is Andrew (Justin Longo), and he’s arriving with his parents and sister at “the old house,” the place where his mother, Kathleen (Maria Dizzia), and her siblings were raised. Dad Lenny (Ben Shenkman) practices his “extended-family face” in the car and, throughout the night’s doings, delivers the wry glances of an adored in-law, in the fold but still observing it. A frenzy of kisses greets the arriving foursome, with Andrew a particular target of lipsticked aunts. The love overflows.

But the movie has already established one of its central conflicts: the friction between teenage Emily (Matilda Fleming) and Kathleen, the exasperated target of her daughter’s endless hostility. There’s also a notable impasse between Dizzia’s character and her mother, Antonia (Mary Reistetter): The hesitation with which Kathleen first approaches her suggests the trepidation of a daughter-in-law who has never met the impassive woman’s expectations. But no, she’s just the kid who doesn’t visit enough.

The second core conflict involves the certainty of son Matt (John J. Trischetti Jr.) that it’s time to move Antonia into a nursing home. With his wife, Bev (Grege Morris), Matt cares for Antonia and sees her deterioration firsthand, every day. Older brother Ray (Tony Savino) rejects his proposal, while older sister Elyse (Maria Carucci) hopes for some sort of middle ground.

Not all the conversations are as urgent as this one. With an Altmanesque overlap of half-heard and half-finished dialogue (but without the Altmanesque ennui), the film’s first half rotates through yakking about real estate, law and order, love of country, love of family, and kids today, with random philosophical asides. And sometimes Taormina just observes the body language of the interactions, the dialogue replaced by the energetic soundtrack playlist. Coursing beneath all the imbibing and games, the mile-long tables of food, the yuletide decorations without end, the VHS trips down memory lane, is the gradually revealed understanding that this will be the last such gathering in this house.

The screenplay doesn’t waste time on exposition, and, like any first-time visitor (Brendan Burt plays such a bemused outsider, eyeing the ornamented house’s cornucopia of kitsch with appreciation and disbelief), you probably won’t grasp all the relationships in this multigenerational get-together on first viewing, at least not until the helpful visuals-equipped closing-credits sequence.

But you’ll likely fall for pretty much everyone in this sprawling ensemble. With her hardcore New York accent and kvelling over her son-in-law (Leo Chan), Elyse is irresistible. And how not to embrace her husband, Ron (Steve Alleva), as he proudly points out that he “blaaanched” the green beans, or their son, Bruce (Chris Lazzaro), a volunteer firefighter with an unspecified troubled past who delivers a gushy but wise toast, or widower Ray, who with great pride and vulnerability brings a secret creative project to his teenage nephew Ricky (Austin Lago).

With such a talent as Dizzia on board, wordless reactions at crucial points make explanatory exchanges unnecessary. (My Christmas wish, if anyone’s asking, would be more movies with this magnetic performer at their center.) Take the moment when Kathleen catches her resentful daughter’s affectionate — and perchance performative — ease with ebullient Aunt Bev.

Early in the evening, Kathleen tells Elyse that Emily needs “a little bit of magic.” And Taormina will certainly provide that, when, about halfway through the movie, Emily and her older, more sophisticated cousin Michelle (Francesca Scorsese) sneak out of the tradition-bound festivities with a couple of friends, gabby Craig (Leo Hervey) in the back seat and Sasha (Ava Francesca Renne) at the wheel of a vehicle she hasn’t quite yet mastered. Their group of Christmas Eve renegades expands with a stop at a bagel shop that’s a teen hangout — linking Miller’s Point to the sandwich-joint setting of Ham on Rye. What unfolds from there begins with crazy driving and turns into a midwinter night’s fantasia, complete with picture-perfect snowfall, a storybook crescent moon and a lone skater on a lake.

Woven throughout the movie are scenes of the world’s two weirdest cops (Gregg Turkington and Michael Cera, who also has a producer’s credit). In their costumey uniforms and non-regulation tresses and facial hair, they’re bumbling and insistently deadpan. As WTF narrative devices go, they provide a thin connective thread, and a late-in-the-proceedings confession between them matters not a whit to the story. Far more persuasive and alluring are the flirtations that cousins Michelle and Emily pursue with, respectively, characters played by Elsie Fisher and Tyler Diamond.

There’s also the bookending presence of three 20-somethings (Sawyer Spielberg, Billy Mcshane, Gregory Falatek) who hang out in the cemetery. Craig deems them failures, but Taormina’s affection for them is evident. His knack for observing the offhand ignorance and cruelty of youth no less than its sincere hunger and exuberance makes me eager to see what he brings to the teen-comedy format, which he’ll reportedly tackle next.

Fleming, in her first feature role, hits fascinating notes of adolescent flintiness, yearning and giddy confusion. Whether she’s ready to admit it or not, she wants to be kinder. Emily glances at the family Christmas tree like an unwanted obligation, and she puts on a tough act with her holiday-dissing friends, but the small wrapped present she carries with her through part of the night is a shiny red emblem of contrition. Late in her insurrectionist adventure, Lund and editor Kevin Anton produce an exquisite match cut that connects Emily, in a middle-of-the-night parking lot, and her mother, gazing down at an elaborate doll’s house.

See Also

The grown-ups in this Christmas story have let go of the center-of-the-universe sense of immortality that propels the kids, but they have their rites of passage too, their passions and reinventions as well as their closely held traditions. In Taormina’s comic drama of beginnings and endings, there are useless gifts and ones that matter, and it’s hard to have one without the other.

Full credits

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors’ Fortnight)
Production companies: Omnes Films, Crypto Castle Productions, Puente Films, Parsifal Pictures, Dweck Productions
Cast: Matilda Fleming, Francesca Scorsese, Maria Dizzia, Michael Cera, Ben Shenkman, Elsie Fisher, Gregg Turkington, Lev Cameron, Tony Savino, Chris Lazzaro, Mary Reistetter, Justin Longo, John J. Trischetti Jr., Maria Carucci, Steve Alleva, Laura Robards, Grege Morris, Sawyer Spielberg, Leo Chan, Jordan Barringer, Brendan Burt, Austin Lago, JoJo Cincinnati, Leo Hervey, Ava Francesca Renne, Tyler Diamond, Billy Mcshane, Gregory Falatek, Laura Wernette, Caveh Zahedi, Liam Mijares, Jackson Mijares, Simone Mijares, Sean Carr, Brittany Hughes, Keon Mosley, Daniel Hudson, Delancey Shapiro, Pavel Banzaraktsaev, Joyitha Mandal, Travis Maffei, Derek Trendz
Director: Tyler Taormina
Screenwriters: Eric Berger, Tyler Taormina
Producers: Krista Minto, Tyler Taormina, David Croley Broyles, Duncan Sullivan, Michael Cera, Michael Davis, Kevin Anton, Eric Berger, David Entin, Rob Rice
Executive producers: Jeremy Gardner, Joseph Lipsey IV, Brock Pierce, Jason Stone, Hannah Dweck, Ted Schaeder
Director of photography: Carson Lund
Production designer: Paris Peterson
Costume designer: Kimberly Odenthal
Music supervisors: Ollie White, Tom Stanford
Editor: Kevin Anton
Casting director: Margo Chester
Story editing: Kevin Anton
Global sales: Magnify

1 hour 47 minutes

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