Strong female protagonists indulging in the forbidden was the furor at this year’s Boston Underground Film Festival. Zach Clark’s White Reindeer (winner of “Best Feature”) stood among powerful films Guilty of Romance, Jug Face and See You Next Tuesday as the most restrained, but no-less-provocative of the bunch. Clark’s meditation on sadness during the holidays is both an intriguing character study and a tribute to the director’s favorite holiday.
Set a few weeks before Christmas, White Reindeer is the story of Suzanne Barrington, a real estate agent who is about as vanilla as it gets. Her ordinary suburban existence is demolished when her husband Jeff (Nathan Williams) is killed during an apparent home invasion. Coping with the loss and a police investigation leading nowhere, it’s revealed to Suzanne that Jeff had been carrying on an affair with a stripper named Fantasia (Laura Lemar-Goldsborough) down at a local club. When Suzanne goes to the club to confront the woman, the two form an unexpected friendship based on their mutual love for Jeff, as well as a profound loneliness shared between them.
The best decision Clark made when conceptualizing his film was to draw these two women together. Most other films of this ilk would focus on two women combating each other over the man, which here seems pointless considering he’s dead. Clark subverts this convention by having Fantasia invite Suzanne into her world, one where late night partying distracts both during the grieving process. For Fantasia, this lifestyle is routine, but she gets a kick out of sharing it with inexperienced Suzanne. The experience helps Suzanne break from her own boundaries, even if she realizes it’s only a temporary escape.
Clark and his crew create a wholly convincing environment of Virginia during the holidays. The film is covered from top-to-bottom with kitschy Christmas decorations, and the soundtrack is filled with holiday classics, sometimes given a contemporary edge. Clark takes a reverent look at the holiday season, and examines the distortion of good cheer in the wake of tragedy. Unlike those who would shun the holidays completely under the same circumstances, Suzanne immerses herself further into the celebration. The White Reindeer of the title is merely another decorative piece that viewers might miss if they blink, but the rugged animal could also serve as a metaphor for Suzanne’s own resilience.
There is no stunning revelation by the film’s climax, but rather it sizzles soothingly like the last remnants of a Yule log burning in the fireplace. For Suzanne, life simply goes on. Now, however, she is better equipped to handle things because she took steps out of her comfort zone, and made amends with the one person who may have haunted her entire life. She embodies all the goodness still left in the holiday season, for the loss of that moment would surely ruin her entirely.