When filmmaker James C. Ferguson decided to adhere to the "old adage" that "talk is cheap," in reworking his first screenplay alongside co-writer Tom Misuraca, he took his original idea about a trio of childhood friends reuniting around the holidays and made one major thematic change.
Thankfully, realizing that the last thing audiences needed was "another Christmas With the Kranks," he abandoned his original intention to address "the commercialization of Christmas" and created a story about three men taking inventory of their lives around the holidays.
However, instead of coming together in celebration, the main characters come together in crisis-- some self-created and some circumstantial-- and intriguingly, although it's set during the week of Christmas (adding a certain immediate level of urgency and introspection to the narrative), essentially Ferguson's Happy Holidays could've taken place in any given week. Yet, it's this particular creative choice-- coupled with the fact that in the simplest of terms, we're dealing with the plights of an Atheist, a Catholic, and a Jew, that sets Happy Holidays apart from not just most holiday films but also the overcrowded genre of "get-together" or reunion movies in the same vein as the excellent but oft-repeated The Big Chill, The Breakfast Club, Beautiful Girls etc.
As unexpectedly refreshing as the first few flakes to fall on a winter day-- Holidays is a gorgeously photographed "walk and talk" indie lensed by cinematographer Josh Blakeslee (made on the cheap for just $150,000 in Rhode Island and Los Angeles in fourteen days) with beautiful black and white photography that gives it both a nostalgic feel a la Judy Berlin and classic Woody Allen. And in the same turn, the look of the film adds an underlying subtext about our societal tendency to view things simply in those two colors and is echoed by our lead characters in one of the film's concluding scenes when he reaches his "breaking point."
Admirably fighting against the tendency to go too cerebral or narcissistic as is the hazard of most Allen-esque "walk and talk" indies (which isn't helped from a poignant yet contemplative Shakespearean quote from Julius Caesar that opens the movie), the film compels with its tireless determination to generate laughs from relatable situations and genuine characters whom we're both invested in and empathize with-- flaws and all-- throughout its roughly one hundred and three minute running time.
The film's lead and the anchor for the entire narrative is found in the affable performance by Paul Hungerford as Patrick--the quintessential small town guy-- who's lived his entire life in the same house nestled in the heart of a small Connecticut town which he'd purchased from his retired parents.
The owner and manager of a pet grooming business and frequently the victim of points and short-phrased labels like "oh, you're the homosexual," Patrick struggles to move on with his life. And as one of the only openly gay residents in his community, this particular Atheist becomes slightly grumpier as the holidays near and he realizes that he has neglected to purchase the love of his life-- his partner Kevin (Bill Daly) a present. Questioning whether or not this means that "something is rotten in the state" of his relationship (to seek Shakespearean inspiration myself), he seems overly thrilled to skip out on an out-of-town family function with Kevin's sister. The holiday "bailout" arrives in a surprise early on when Patrick's best friend Alden (John Crye) phones him in the middle of the night with news that he's coming to town and he's in the middle of a bad situation as well.
Eager to put his own issues on the back burner, Patrick happily greets the always-evolving, perpetually dissatisfied greeting card designer Alden who-- having survived a brutal mugging several months earlier (which left him in a two-day coma) -- made the rash decision to convert to Judaism based on the dedication of a Good Samaritan and Rabbi who’d tended to him in his time of need. Although Alden is over the moon about his newfound religious faith, eagerly referencing parables and buying menorahs whenever he can, Patrick takes this news with a grain of salt, realizing how quickly his friend changed colleges and jobs in his pattern of constant change and chronic unrest. However, Patrick is far more alarmed to learn the real reason his Judaism spouting sidekick has appeared back on the scene upon discovering that his long-term girlfriend had kicked him out after Alden declined her proposal of marriage because she’s a Gentile after all.
Taking their disagreement and disbelief out for breakfast where two elderly women nearly steal the entire scene with an old comedic Abbott and Costello inspired routine complete with kooky eccentricities and blunt observations, they discover that their third amigo from high school—Kirby Chase (Thomas Rhoads)—has also shown up back on their old stomping ground. Although, instead of a question of faith or love, Kirby has returned to bury his estranged father who is mostly memorable for his insensitivity and the number of women he’d married.
Keeping each other company and soon falling back in sync-- the three brace a few speed bumps (mostly derived from the tense back and forth between Kirby and Alden whose link to each other has mostly been due to their friendship with Patrick more than each other) and set about trying to distract themselves from their current problems by delving back into the past. Literally digging up old buried treasures and secrets when they go on the hunt for a time capsule, the men begin wondering whether or not it's best to keep the past buried or whether nostalgia is simply blinding them to the newer realities they're facing and problems they're not ready to address.
Heartfelt and sharply written-- the film believably launches into the complexities of human relationships and the way that it's sometimes hard to admit how much those we held so dear have changed (or stayed the same) over so many decades as experiences and the outside world have begun to affect our previously self-involved outlook.
Additionally, Holidays fills a definite need in independent cinema to move away from the plots of twenty-somethings along with the endless parade of films about addicts, dysfunctional families, and characters who hate each other and don't resemble anything remotely real and into the dynamics of older characters and situations that are true, funny, optimistic, and entertaining.
While, of course, due to the tremendous amount of dialogue and sparse locations, it does have the feel of a really great stage play at times-- the versatility of the actors thankfully manage to break down those walls fairly quickly with impeccable comic timing as they work from Ferguson and Misuraca's genuinely hilarious script. Currently releasing in a limited theatrical run and with special engagements in various cities, Happy Holidays is also available via online outlets (including Caachi, Indiepix and Eyesoda), and will be available on iTunes in January before eventually moving to WebMovieNow, CinemaNow, and Amazon On Demand as well.