Call it perverse or merely counterintuitive, but some of the best-loved Christmas films aren’t especially merry. Miracle on 34th Street, for example, is the story of a little girl without a father or faith, and of an elderly man who, through most of the film, is at risk of being committed to a mental institution. And A Christmas Carol, in its various big-screen renditions, is about a mean old coot whose Christmases have always been unhappy and an impoverished family whose youngest child is crippled and dying. Even It’s a Wonderful Life, the season’s signature film, starts off with its hero attempting suicide. The ending may be happy, but it sure takes a while to get there.
Just out on DVD, Midnight Clear may never achieve Christmas-classic status. But like those other films, this 2006 production is ultimately affecting and definitely has a dark side. In fact, it’s darker than the others, going It’s a Wonderful Life one better by featuring two characters who attempt suicide.
Set entirely on the day and night of Christmas Eve, the film looks in on the lives of five lonely people in small-town Texas. There is, first of all, Lefty, a middle-aged loser played by Stephen Baldwin. Divorced, dejected and living in his rattletrap car, he’s very close to the end of an ever-fraying rope. Then there is Mary (Mary Thornton), whose husband has been institutionalized since he suffered brain damage in a motorcycle accident a year earlier. With her young son, she’s on her way to visit her parents for the holidays when her car abruptly breaks down.
Mary finds herself at the tumbledown gas station owned and operated by a man (Kirk B.R. Woller) whose dashed dreams weigh so heavily on his shoulders that he can’t even bring himself to return his customers’ “Merry Christmas” wishes. Another unhappy man, a youth pastor (Mitchell Jarvis), leads a church group of teens on a caroling mission that he’d consider useless and embarrassing even if the kids’ voices were more harmonious.
Most despairing of all is Eva (K Callan), a bird-like senior with big eyes, a careworn complexion and a forced smile. She attempts to put on a brave front, but sometimes those eyes betray her.
Midnight Clear is often visually as well as thematically dark. As night falls, its colors become so deliberately desaturated that it sometimes seems to be in black-and-white. The best thing about this low-budget picture is that the small tragedies of its almost-lost souls are strikingly authentic. Their lives are messy and unfulfilled in the ways that real lives often are, only somewhat more so. Yet the film is not without hope. Call it an indie flick with a soul. As the plot, or plots, thicken, these lives begin to intersect and we become aware of some pre-existing connections. Eventually, the intersections result in a few touchingly tiny Christmas miracles.
If you think of Stephen Baldwin as the goofball from such movies as Bio-Dome and The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas, then his sensitive performance will surprise you. Give goofiness just a half-turn and it can look like crushing disillusionment, which is just right for the character of Lefty. The cast is a tad uneven, but K Callan is superb. The role of Eva is a bit underwritten, but Callan fills in the blanks with her deeply felt performance.
Midnight Clear was directed with care and tact by Dallas Jenkins from an understated script by Wes Halula, which was based on a story by Jenkins’ father, Jerry B. Jenkins. If the elder Jenkins’ name rings a bell, that may be because he is an author of the expressly Christian Left Behind novels.
Put that together with Baldwin’s much-trumpeted born-again status and a cameo by Victoria Jackson, another outspoken acolyte, and you’d have a right to expect something sentimental and pushy. But that’s not what these filmmakers are up to.
“I have no interest in preaching,” says director Jenkins on a mini-documentary that comes on the DVD, and the film proves him right. Midnight Clear avoids that aesthetic dead end – yet another Christmas miracle.