Early in the unexpectedly moving Yuletide comedy-drama White Reindeer, a nice, pretty, somewhat bland young real-estate agent named Suzanne Barrington (Anna Margaret Hollyman) learns that her husband, a popular local weatherman, has been murdered. She’s predictably overcome with grief, but what she discovers next proves almost as devastating: He was having an affair with a gorgeous black stripper named Fantasia (Laura Lemar-Goldsborough), and their relationship was emotional as well as physical.
The film then chronicles—with surprising subtlety, given some of the first act’s broader, more cartoonish strokes—a wrenching form of double, or even triple, grief. Suzanne is mourning the loss of a man she thought she knew and loved, but she’s also mourning the passing of the side of her husband that she didn’t know, a side that did coke with strippers and watched porn involving black teenagers. Finally, Suzanne is mourning the certainty that came with her old life of comfort as much as she’s grieving the man who shared it, whom she fundamentally didn’t know.
The revelations about her husband, followed by the inopportune announcement that her own folks are splitting, completely destroys her sense of security. Suzanne forms an unlikely friendship with Fantasia, who becomes her guide to a shadowy nighttime world of stripping, cocaine, shoplifting, club-hopping, and partying. All that sad partying eventually leads Suzanne to accept an invitation to an orgy at the neighbors’ house. She’ll do anything to numb the pain, but nothing is extreme enough to cut through her thick wall of grief and confusion. White Reindeer makes smart comic and dramatic use of the juxtaposition between its protagonist’s heartbreaking fragility and the debauched realm of depravity in which she immerses herself, but the jokes generally serve the story’s emotions. The film executes its bad-taste gags with such delicacy and unexpected emotional truth that they don’t even seem like jokes. This is attributable largely to Hollyman’s fearless, convincing lead performance, which grounds the movie in a believable reality, no matter how crazy things become.
White Reindeer walks a tricky tonal tightrope that lets it generate real pathos out of a conversation between its traumatized heroine and a woman in a see-through mesh outfit with a dildo strapped purposefully to the crotch. Not everyone is suffering as acutely as Suzanne this particular holiday season, but she’s far from the only person feeling lonely, sad, and out of place. White Reindeer feels everyone’s pain, from its well-wrought protagonist to the jowly guy at the orgy who has difficulty sustaining an erection. Though it isn’t at all averse to scoring laughs out of the contrast between its protagonist’s lily-white J. Crew exterior and her seemingly temporary new vices—it seems safe to assume her first orgy will also be her last—White Reindeer is refreshingly non-judgmental about drug use and transgressive sex.
That’s the perverse Christmas miracle of White Reindeer: As outrageous as it gets, it almost never loses its exquisitely wrought tone of bittersweet melancholy, which is no small feat for a film that at one point has its hero masturbating a sad, overweight man while a younger, more attractive fellow orgy participant (indie fixture Joe Swanberg, proving he really is everywhere this year) has sex with her from behind.
White Reindeer is charmingly modest and life-sized. For Scrooges looking to cut through the phony piety of the season with a low-key, naturalistic take on drugged-up Yuletide naughtiness, this winning little holiday sleeper should do the trick for folks who’ve taken in Bad Santa a few too many times.