Tuesday, June 18, 2024

“CHRISTMAS EVE IN MILLER’S POINT”

THE STORY – Set over one long Christmas Eve, the film follows a large extended family as they celebrate a suburban New York Christmas. As the night goes on, this ensemble piece focuses in on a selection of characters, including a group of adult siblings debating what to do with their ageing mother, a teenager sneaking out to party, and a mother and daughter at odds.

THE CAST – Matilda Fleming, Michael Cera, Francesca Scorsese, Gregg Turkington, Elsie Fisher, Sawyer Spielberg & Maria Dizzia

THE TEAMTyler Taormina (Director/Writer) & Eric Berger (Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 106 Minutes


To watch “Christmas Eve in Miller’s Point” is to step into a familiar, warm, and boisterous family Christmas. Directed by Tyler Taormina and written by repeat collaborators Taormina and Eric Berger, the film is an affectionate portrait of a big Italian-American family in the early 2000s, set over one long Christmas Eve celebration. The film had its world premiere last week as part of the Cannes Quinzaine Directors’ Fortnight (an independent sidebar of the main Cannes Film Festival). Consisting of lesser-known actors (except for small parts by Elsie Fisher, Francesca Scorsese, Sawyer Spielberg, and Michael Cera), this is an ensemble piece about a family that celebrates the ordinary. The story feels universal enough that anyone who has attended a family function will find a piece of their own experience while also capturing the distinct charm and mannerisms of Italian-American Long Islanders.

As we walk into the family home, we are reminded of the opening scene of “Home Alone” with the boisterous family across generations and levels of the house (and indeed, Taormina quotes it as an aesthetic influence on the film). But just as Taormina captures the joy of a big house full of family, he also captures how claustrophobic and overwhelming it can be, reminiscent of Emma Seligman’s “Shiva Baby” in that sense. The film’s opening is simultaneously overstimulating and luxuriously paced. Despite the loud and boisterous nature of the Christmas party, Taormina takes his time letting you get settled in.

We spend a very long time getting acquainted with all the family members before the plot goes anywhere. For the first forty-five minutes or so, no clear protagonist emerges. Instead, you see little snippets of family life across the grandmother, four adult children, and their various children and partners. Taormina and Berger have drawn this family with such care and detail that every character feels real and fleshed out, even those we only see sparingly. Taormina and cinematographer Carson Lund share a playful shooting style, filled with personality and humor, as they capture a collection of little moments at the party. Like a fly on the wall, the camera will step into a room and observe a brief snippet of a conversation before leaving again to another room. For the first act, we feel like guests at the party who are kept at a distance, receiving just enough information about each character to pique our interest but not enough to feel like we know any of them well. It’s relaxing and intriguing, but audiences must approach the film with the understanding that the tone is slow and gentle and the drama very pedestrian. As the film nears the hour mark, you begin to wait for the small family gripes to lead to some sort of explosion of family tension (vis-à-vis, “The Bear’s” Christmas episode or “August: Osage County”); however, this isn’t that sort of film. The writers have chosen to eschew melodrama for a gentle, observation-led look at big families and the minutiae of their lives.

At about halfway through the two-hour runtime, the ensemble finally begins to whittle down as Taormina and Berger choose their favorite stories to follow. One chosen character is Kathleen (an excellent Maria Dizzia), mother of teen Emily (newcomer Matilda Fleming), who has a tense relationship with her family. At the party, Kathleen and her adult siblings are debating what to do with their elderly mother and the family home now that she can’t take care of herself. Meanwhile, Emily sneaks out of the party with her older cousin Michelle (Francesca Scorsese) to drive around and meet up with their schoolmates at the diner (staffed by Fisher’s character Lynn). There’s also Michael Cera (also one of the film’s producers), who has a delightfully small role as a cop who is disinterested in doing any real work on patrol with his partner (Gregg Turkington).

A substantial part of the second half of the film follows Emily and the group in their teenage revelry. The group drives around, takes over the local diner, convinces a shop attendant to sell them beer, and exchanges kisses with their crushes in the backseat of cars. This vivid, charming sequence captures the universal thrill of being old enough to drive around without your parents for the first time. It almost feels like a mini coming-of-age film in itself, which would have been fine, but in the context of an existing ensemble film, this subplot goes on for a bit too long. The narrative strays so much from the family Christmas that it almost feels like this is the film Taormina really wants to make. We return to the party throughout the second act to revisit the adult children and their families (although, by now, it does feel like Taormina’s and our own interests remain outside the party). Although the second act touches on themes of grief and childhood and moving on, the ending is deliberately understated— there’s no Hollywood ending here.

Production Designer Paris Peterson and Cinematographer Carson Lund have done a magnificent job of capturing the emotional and physical warmth of a friendly, well-loved home in a snowy New York winter. The home, the decorations, and the costumes all feel lived-in and authentic in a way that makes viewers feel cozy, too. Although, as an Australian, I am unfamiliar with white Christmases and specifically American traditions, I was still reminded of my own boisterous family Christmases. Taormina has created a sweet Christmas story that is simultaneously specific to his own Long Island upbringing while invoking something universal about big families during the holidays.

“Christmas Eve in Miller’s Point” is an affectionate study of a big family at Christmas, but it runs about twenty minutes too long for what it is. Audiences will get the most out of it if they expect a slow, gentle, observation-based character study. The ensemble is a testament to the talent of these lesser-known actors, with particularly strong performances from Maria Dizzia and newcomer Matilda Fleming, playing a mother and teen daughter at odds. Taormina’s affection for the material and capturing the minutiae of family life is evident, and that clear care makes for a rewarding experience, despite the excessive length. Taormina’s flare for visual style, aided by cinematographer Lund and designer Peterson, creates a cozy, wintery Christmas aesthetic. “Christmas Eve in Miller’s Point” is a quiet gem of a film that would make for thoughtful Christmas viewing.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - An affectionate, slow ensemble piece about a big American family Christmas, set entirely over Christmas Eve. Directed and shot with a clear visual style, quiet sense of humor, and affection for the material.

THE BAD - Feels too long for what it is: A simple, charming study of a group of characters with very little plot. The diversion into the teenagers’ escapades—though charming— goes on too long and creates an oddly uneven story structure.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - None

THE FINAL SCORE - 7/10

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>An affectionate, slow ensemble piece about a big American family Christmas, set entirely over Christmas Eve. Directed and shot with a clear visual style, quiet sense of humor, and affection for the material.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>Feels too long for what it is: A simple, charming study of a group of characters with very little plot. The diversion into the teenagers’ escapades—though charming— goes on too long and creates an oddly uneven story structure.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b>None<br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>7/10<br><br>"CHRISTMAS EVE IN MILLER'S POINT"