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Christmess: Why critics are raving about this unlikely feel-good Aussie festive movie

On the steady road to redemption in Christmess.

On the steady road to redemption in Christmess. Photo: Sie Kitts Photography

Every year, a stack of Christmas movies starring a big-tummied Santa, his North Pole elves and happy wife, and often a corporate grinch-turned-good guy, makes it onto our holiday-viewing lists.

Storylines often revolve around a massive a snow storm that prevents families reuniting for Christmas Day lunch, a sweet little kid who gets left off Santa’s list, and always the inevitable fake reindeer that save the day in Central Park in New York.

Not this year.

Award-winning Australian writer and director Heath Davis (Broke, Book Week, Locusts) has gone totally off the festive script with his Christmess movie starring Steve Le Marquand, musician Hannah Joy (lead singer of Middle Kids) and Darren Gilshenan.

All play alcoholics living in a halfway house. All are just a step away from temptation back to the bottle.

It’s a story of hope, redemption and a little bit of “trust me, it’ll be all right”.

“It’s capturing the heart of the nation,” Davis tells The New Daily, during a week of Q&A cinema sessions across Australia’s east coast.

From Hobart to New Zealand, moviegoers have described a “beautiful and moving film” on social media, while Davis is delighted at how his indie movie is getting prime real estate on billboards in the major cities.

Organisations such as SMART Recovery Australia and Odyssey House have supported the film, as have dozens of movie theatres, including Reading, Dendy and independent chains.

‘Unlike anything else out there’

Veteran Australian actor Le Marquand, whose familiar face has been seen in long-running TV series such as Rush, Packed to the Rafters and Love Child, plays a once-famous actor Chris.

He is released from a rehab centre and goes to live at an outer-suburban halfway house with two recovering alcoholics who are making a bit more progress than he is.

He’s kind, lost, lonely. A bit cynical. He doesn’t particularly like himself but is desperate to try and make good his past.

Job prospects are slim for an alcoholic, but Chris manages to score a job as a Santa in a shopping centre, where he accidentally meets his estranged daughter.

Then the quest begins to win his daughter’s forgiveness. His housemates help, encourage and support him.

No spoiler alert here, as Chris begins to believe he can do it. He doesn’t quite get his daughter to Christmas Day lunch and there’s no immediate resolution, but he understands, and leaves a small toy at her front door for his grandson as a glimmer of future possibilities.

After a series of errors, the housemates resort to a Christmas dinner of ham rolls with cherries on top. Photo: Sie Kitts

It’s that glimmer of hope that Davis pushes, and which he uses to highlight that in the midst of the struggle with addiction, anything is possible if you’re just brave enough.

“With the support of good, non-judgmental people around you, it is possible to turn your life around. There is hope for a better tomorrow. I’ve seen it first hand many times,” he said.

“It’s the truth of it … it’s the emotional resonance of the material. It’s an honest film with real characters set around Christmas, which is unlike anything else out there.”

Davis said all Australians can identify and relate to the characters, story and themes in some way.

“It’s even had the same impact with American audiences who don’t care that it’s not set in the snow,” he said.

“The main messages are empathy, kindness and the importance of human connection and hope.

“Christmas can be a very hard time and lonely time for a lot of people.

“This movie is a throwback to the true meaning and spirit of the season, which is human connection and looking out for your neighbours.”

Of Christmess, critic Bernard Zuel writes that “there is no pretence that recovery is linear or certain, built on good intentions and promises, or that lapses, even outright falls, are definitive”.

“The film doesn’t end on a resolution, maybe not even a progression you could argue, but options are available, alternatives are seen … no one is exactly the same.

“Davis trusts that even in a Christmas movie we are big enough and ugly enough to get that.”

Musician Hannah Joy has never acted before. Here she sings Jingle Bells with Steve Le Marquand. Photo: Sie Kitts

The film brings home the reality that the toughest time on the calendar for many who are struggling with mental health issues, family breakdown, addiction and loneliness … is Christmas.

According to Lifeline, this year “has been hard, and for many, this Christmas may be harder”.

“It’s a time full of pressures – to buy gifts, to be sociable, to seem happy and to be grateful. But underneath the smiles and Santa hats, there’s often a deep loneliness,” its website states.

“In the coming weeks, it could be even more challenging – with financial stresses only adding to the feelings of isolation.”

Lifeline said it received a call every 28 seconds last December.

“This year, we’re expecting even more,” it said.

Davis said the themes of family, addiction and redemption “are universal”: “I think it helps that we humanise these characters. They are three-dimensional everyday people, not caricatures or bogans”.

Christmess “is speaking to people in a way never seen” with fans demanding cinemas book it in before it is released on streaming platform Binge next week.

“It’s like a Christmas movement,” he said, adding his little movie “with a giant heart is really catching a fire”.

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