Writing on Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island in 2010, Anthony Lane whipped a quote from Umberto Eco: “Two cliches make us laugh but a hundred clichés move us, because we sense dimly that the clichés are talking among themselves, celebrating a reunion.” Eco’s words resonate even stronger in Christmas Eve at Miller’s Point, a fascinating simulacrum of festive movies in which references to annual favorites are thrust together with about as much delicacy as the family it tenderly depicts. The island isn’t Shutter but Long, specifically a small town in Suffolk County where we meet four generations of the Bolsanos, a blue-collar family going through the motions and rituals of their annual get-together, adoring and enduring each other as best they can in what might be their last year in the family home. The filmmaker behind this delicate, strange, reflective bauble is Tyler Taormina, co-founder of the Omnes film collective with Carson Lund, the cinematographer on each of his films to date; and over those three projects (Miller’s was preceded by Happer’s Comet and Ham on Rye) there is already the suggestion of a distinct, novel style: imagine a slightly jagged New Sincerity lensed by Russell Metty and you’re somewhere in the area.

The setting and production design are so rich with authenticity and detail that fans of The Bear might be tempted to draw comparisons with a famous episode in season two, but Miller’s Point‘s motley crew can boast their own joyful mess of idiosyncrasies. All of the holiday staples are served up here: the tough guy brothers-in-law, the wily matriarch, the mildly problematic uncle, the stroppy teens itching to escape, and the younger kids who have yet to rebel against their sparkly dresses and dickie bows. There’s a gift-giving ceremony, a screening of VHS home movies, a family walk, and a slightly inebriated after-dinner speech. Taormina collects these moments less like plot points in a conventional narrative than flashes of his own memory, micro-recollections jumbled with all the unruly charm of a photo album.

We are introduced to proceedings through a typically mild-mannered in-law (Ben Schenkman) but the film’s opening half is shared by the collective. Later, after the teenagers make a break for it, driving to a bagel shop where the local youths congregate––and where freegan dumpster divers might be causing the proprietor to have an aneurysm––Taormina slightly narrows his focus: mainly to Emily (a wonderful Matilda Fleming) and Michelle (Francesca Scorsese, of Martin and TikTok fame), who has a crush on one of the bagel shop’s employees (played by Eighth Grade‘s Elsie Fisher)––though, like most storylines in the film, it is merely one strand in the tapestry.

Explaining the Taormina vibe isn’t easy. The simplest inroad might be to listen to the way his characters converse: so unguarded and un-movielike as to give the sense of eavesdropping. “I wish everyone could have friends like us,” one of the younger people says, sharing a feeling many might recall from a time when the world felt smaller. In looking at such vulnerable moments from a critical distance that still allows for an enormous amount of nostalgia, Taormina achieves a singular tone. Crucially, the director isn’t looking to mock this naivety; if anything the film envies it, even ennobles it. Every now and then the director checks in with two local cops, one played by Michael Cera (who also produced) and the other by Gregg Turkington. The On Cinema icon’s presence might put some viewers on the lookout for an elaborate joke, but it proves to be a cunning false flag. (He provides some comic relief, but it’s comedy of which Beckett might approve.) Something similar could be said for the inclusion of Francesca Scorsese and Sawyer Spielberg (the latter appears as a grungy stoner named Splint), which looked like stunt casting but plays like an inspired meta flourish––another interesting shade to this film’s milieu of family ties and cinema history.

The grainy, Sean Price Williams era of East Coast independent filmmaking is notably absent here. Miller’s Point instead seems to draw from a glossier age: ’80s Hollywood, perhaps, or something older still. There are of course plenty winks to Christmas classics (a cardboard cutout on a rumba like the Jordan in Home Alone is perhaps most obvious) but the most interesting ones appear almost subconsciously––when Emily dons a Santa hat, elfin face and dark bangs peaking out, are we not to think of Rooney Mara in Carol? In many ways, it is Emily who walks away with the film, and it’s with her that Taormina lingers as we wander to a car park late on and to a gorgeous sequence of young people pairing up; Lund’s camera follows their hands in close-up as blankets of snow fall around them. It is an aching, ineffably cinematic close to a film that speaks to the medium’s past and may point to some small part of its future.

Christmas Eve at Miller’s Point premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival

Grade: A-

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