Credit: Quinzaine des Cinéastes
by Daniel Gorman Featured Festival Coverage Film

Christmas Eve in Miller’s Point — Tyler Taormina [Cannes ’24 Review]

May 24, 2024

Now with three feature films under his belt, Tyler Taormina has become our premier chronicler of a certain kind of suburban dreamscape — opaque, occasionally oppressive, always mysterious, but also gentle and soothing, a cloistered enclave of familial ties and burgeoning hormones. Taormina traverses a very fine line — home is where the heart is, but the lulling sensation of a warm blanket can also become suffocating. Taken together, Ham on Rye, Happer’s Comet, and the new Christmas Eve in Miller’s Point chart a series of adolescent and post-adolescent experiences: Rye is an oblique metaphor for leaving the home, plus a eulogy for those that get left behind; conceived and shot during Covid lockdowns, Happer’s represents a kind of stasis, the home as a liminal space of life deferred; Christmas Eve is the “return,” a gathering of three generations of family coming together and taking stock of a moment in time. It’s Taormina’s largest canvas yet, involving a large cast of mostly non-professional actors congregating around an ancestral home and struggling to come to terms with the passing of time.

Working with co-writer Eric Berger and cinematographer Carson Lund, both longtime collaborators, Taormina conceives of a simultaneously specific and vague milieu — fittingly, there are confusing signposts as to when the film even takes place; the elaborate production design evokes picturesque photospreads from ‘50s, while kids play a video game with very modern graphics on an old CRT television. Several teenagers are shown texting via flip phones, while adults walk around with rotary phones with long cords. It’s a mishmash of signifiers, a jumbled chronology that suggests the non-linear flow of memories. As much as such a large ensemble piece could be said to have main characters, we spend the most time with middle-aged Lenny (Ben Shenkman), his wife Kathleen (Maria Dizzia), their son Andrew (Justin Long), and teenage daughter Emily (Matilda Fleming). As the film begins, they are arriving at the old Long Island house that Kathleen grew up in. Taormina depicts the car ride as a journey through abstraction, where crossing a bridge conjures a light show of streaking yellows and reds outside the car windows. Realism is, from the beginning, dismissed.

Upon their arrival, the rest of the family is already in the midst of holiday revelry. The house is bursting at the seams, a cacophony of activity and bustling bodies. This whirlwind of activity is rendered via wild zooms and extreme closeups, plus lots of insert shots of the lifetime’s worth of bric-a-brac that large families tend to accumulate. Eventually, a tentative narrative thread emerges: Kathleen’s brothers and sisters must decide what to do with Grandma Isabelle (JoJo Cincinnati). Matthew (John J. Trischetti Jr.) and his wife Bev (Grege Morris) live with his mother, and have decided to sell the house and place her in an assisted living facility. This doesn’t sit well with everyone else, but rather than tease out this conflict for the remainder of the film, Taormina instead lets it recede into the background. Instead, brief moments of sensory explosions take precedent. For instance, a sojourn outside for an annual parade of fire trucks bejeweled with holiday decorations becomes another abstracted interlude, a montage of smearing color fields and woozy waves of lights.

Eventually, after dinner is served and the adults drift into a more reflective mode (drunkenly sharing old home movies on battered VHS tapes), Emily sneaks out of the house to hook up with friends and go to a party, and much of the film’s second half follows Emily’s nocturnal adventures; echoes of Ham on Rye abound, as the local teens hang out at a sandwich shop and eventually make their way to a clearing and partake in a pairing-off ritual. It’s all very mysterious, although it never feels threatening in the way Rye is. The long night simply goes on, before everyone returns home, the next morning waiting in the wings. Nothing has been resolved, but it was never going to be anyway. Life is too unmanageable for that. But for brief moments we can bask in the glow of a fireplace and reminisce with our loved ones. But cozy as that may sound, make no mistake: Christmas Eve in Miller’s Point is too peculiar to become a new holiday classic. Taormina flirts with experimentation and eschews narrative to the point that is sure to scare off studios — unlike any number of Sundance alum, Taormina seems to have no desire to make a calling card for the MCU or a streaming series — offering a dizzier impressionism of the holiday season. All the better that his languid, deeply personal excursions into the heart of suburbia remain small-scaled and appealingly odd.

Published as part of Cannes Film Festival 2024 — Dispatch 2.