If the typical holiday movie teaches us to renew our faith in family and friends — think It’s a Wonderful Life, or Home for the Holidays, or whatever — then Zach Clark’s White Reindeer flips the usual formula on its head. It’s not about the loss of said faith, exactly, but about learning to be okay with leaving all that stuff behind. It’s the story of Suzanne (Anna Margaret Hollyman), a Realtor living a perfectly middle-of-the-road life in the D.C. suburbs with her weatherman husband — pulling out the Christmas music as soon as Thanksgiving is over, selling houses in her neighborhood to amiable, be-sweatered couples not unlike herself. She’s the idealized consumer, the kind of person who would be horrified by an anti-holiday holiday movie like White Reindeer.
Suzanne’s complacent life gets rocked when she comes home one day to find her husband brutally slain. And to think, they were about to move to Hawaii, too, for a new job of his; she had the Hawaiian Christmas music all picked out and everything. The heartbreak is compounded when Suzanne learns that hubby had had a long affair with a young stripper named Autumn, birth name Fantasia (Laura Lemar-Goldsborough). She tracks Fantasia down, and soon they’ve bonded, thanks in part to their mutual loss — with Suzanne joining the stripper and her shoplifting, coke-snorting, hard-partying friends, letting it all hang out.
So far, so schematic. But White Reindeer isn’t really about a good girl cutting loose. Rather, it’s about a person without a rudder, without any sort of identity, slowly realizing that she can’t let others dictate her own normalcy. That Suzanne slips so easily into drug-fueled debauchery in the wake of her husband’s death speaks not to her grief but to the fact that she has no baseline of individuality. Her world is defined more by what she can buy than by what she is. (In the wake of hubby’s death, for example, she finds solace in a flattering new red sweater.) This is a person who just goes along with whatever is around her — a fact that becomes even clearer later, when Suzanne attends a holiday party at her seemingly straitlaced neighbors’ home. (I won’t ruin the scene for you, but it’s like what might happen if Lars von Trier directed Love, Actually.)
I’ve mentioned that White Reindeer is a comedy, right? Well, it is, but only to an extent. Clark doesn’t actually play anything for laughs. There’s a stiff, incantatory quality to the acting, and at first you don’t quite know what to make of it: Is it bad acting? Is it ironic acting? Is everyone supposed to sound this insincere? But as White Reindeer goes on, this discomfort begins to feel right; it supports the film’s desire to constantly keep us off-balance. And although the film eventually heads toward a kind of peace — as Suzanne begins to unwittingly make her way toward carving out her own little identity in her own little world — the real pleasure here still lies in watching the madness unfold and escalate. What Clark has captured in this character is a spinning top in mid-bobble, right before it collapses, right before we remember that it can’t just spin forever. White Reindeer is a deliberately awkward little movie, and it’s a hard one to shake.