Cannes 2024 Review: Tyler Taormina’s “Christmas Eve at Miller’s Point” is a Gift That Keeps On Giving

The blur of icicle lights that opens “Christmas Eve in Miller’s Point” are a reminder of how fast life moves, though Lenny (Ben Shenkman), his wife Kathleen (Maria Dizzia), their teen daughter Emily (Matilda Fleming) and son Andrew (Justin Longo) all seem to wish it would go by a little faster as they race to make it to their family’s holiday get-together, perhaps less so to see relatives again than to get it all over with. “Duck and cover,” Lenny quips when his brood arrives, opening the door to silence that quickly turns to chaos as aunts dash to give Andrew a peck on the cheek and Christmas standards play loudly throughout the house, with the smell of the sausage dressing that Uncle Ronald (Steve Alleva) is stirring in the kitchen rendered so pungently it smacks you in the face, even when it would seem impossible for director Tyler Taormina to directly communicate smell as part of the film’s full-on assault of the senses.

In the moment, it seems like a little much, but with time, the intensity is what makes the memory last, a keen observation that is likely to ensure that Taormina’s enthralling third feature will come to mind as a holiday perennial for audiences as much as the events that unfold in it are for its characters despite little of note seeming to transpire. There are major things afoot at the home of Kathleen’s mother Isabelle (JoJo Cincinnati), but being Christmas, it isn’t immediately part of the casual chit-chat that fills the endless hallways in the two-story abode where you can hear recipes being shared in one room, talk of a relative being released from prison in another and “Call of Duty” is being played in the basement by the kids. Even if you don’t come from a gregarious Italian-American family, you’ve surely been here before when the small talk leads you to lean in as if this is your own flesh and blood being discussed along with Paris Peterson’s intricate production design, ranging from old tchotchkes and seasonal stockings lining the mantles along with family photos to the presence of an entire bakery’s worth of desserts on the dining room table, surely have something around to trigger a personal recollection.

Rich in irony at every turn when nostalgia can be endearing as it is repellent, it’s amusing to see the mood turn serious in what is clearly a teen girl’s bedroom adorned with posters of a fictional boy band “Tres Leche” where Isabelle’s children sneak off to discuss whether to put her into a hospice, a decision clearly weighing heavily on Marty (Tyler Diamond) and his wife Bev (Grege Morris) who have had to shoulder much of her care. In Taormina and Eric Berger’s marvelously structured script, it isn’t what will happen to Isabelle that becomes the driving force for the rest of the film, but the fact that the conversation is being had at all when a sense of mortality suddenly looms over the proceedings and as four generations of the family are brought together under one roof, some appreciate the moment more than others. This isn’t limited to age when beyond Isabelle clearly soaking up all she can while everyone’s in town, there’s Cousin Bruce (Chris Lazzaro), the most unexpectedly charming of the lot whose past indiscretions may have derailed what dreams he had for his life but is delighted to have found his way home.

Without any overly dramatic confrontations, “Christmas Eve in Miller’s Point” still has the heft of a sly, suburban “Hamlet,” beautifully illustrating the ways in which members of the family may not see eye to eye from the siblings that have to decide Isabelle’s fate to the parents and children who have vastly different priorities. (It even has a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the form of a pair of nonplussed cops, played by Michael Cera and Gregg Turkington, who show up from time to time to keep the peace.) The film reminds of David Robert Mitchell’s “The Myth of the American Sleepover” in exuding a feeling of innocence while entirely conscious of how precious what it’s capturing is, particularly when the teens in the family, including Emily and her cousin Michelle (Francesca Scorsese), drive off in the middle of the night for a bit of fresh air — a fleeting time of independence to hold dear as much as the adults want all the time they can with their kids before they scatter to the wind. Yet when the reality is that things are always in flux, Taormina offers the fantasy that one can only manage with film to freeze time, which would be special enough if only to get lost in the experience he’s brought to life, but the ability to return to it again and again with the perspective of age emerging as the greatest gift of all.

“Christmas Eve in Miller’s Point” will screen again at the Cannes Film Festival as part of Directors Fortnight on May 18th at 11:30 am at Cinema Le Raimu, 2:30 pm at Cinema Alexandre III and 4:30 pm at Cinema Studio 13.

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