A Dry Christmas
Most made for TV Christmas movies are usually obvious affairs which use a familiar theme and drench it in sugar coated fun and romance, and to be honest I enjoy these kinds of movies. But then when you come across one which is different it throws you and that is what has happened to me after watching "Off Season" or "Secret Santa" as it was billed here in the UK. It threw me because whilst it uses some familiar themes from a guy who might be Santa to the occasionally used having Christmas in July it has a very different tone, still a little sugary but nowhere near as sweet as you normally expect from this kind of movie.
It's been two months since little Jackson Mayhew (Rory Culkin - You Can Count on Me) lost his parents in a car crash and he is staying with his aunt Patty (Sherilyn Fenn - Deadly Isolation) who works at the Coconut Motel. Patty is struggling with Jackson as the young boy has an active imagination and makes up things about the various guests including the grumpy Sam Clausner (Hume Cronyn - Marvin's Room) who despite being thin Jackson proclaims is Santa on holiday. But after he starts saying this things take a very strange turn at the motel as the news spreads and before long not only is the motel busy celebrating Christmas in July but the press are covering it. It also brings Richard Frangello (Adam Arkin) who insists he is a dentist whilst Jackson proclaims that he is an under cover cop there for Sam.
As you can see "Off Season" does use some very familiar Christmas movie ideas none more so the whole set up about Sam Clausner being Santa. But unlike most TV movies it doesn't deal with this in an obviously fun, sugary way as we have Jackson who is a depressed kid, Sam who is grumpy and doesn't like being interrupted and a lot more. It almost takes something very typical of a made for TV Christmas movie but makes it very dry, eschewing the opportunity to make it overly sweet except for the humour of Mel the Motel manager putting on Christmas in July. What that means is that like so many Christmas movies "Off Season" has its messages especially for young Jackson as he spends time with Sam but because they are delivered in that dry way they work even better than in your typical over sweet way.
Having said all that "Off Season" isn't going to be for everyone and it features some diverse performances from Hume Cronyn being far to thin to be Santa yet pulling of the character brilliantly with his crotchety nature through to Alan Arkin who is solid as Richard and has a wonderful twist to his character. Then there is Sherilyn Fenn who delivers what is a simple but sensitive performance as Aunt Patty, trying to help Jackson who doesn't seem to want to be helped. But it is Rory Culkin who is the star of the movie because he has just the right amount of adorable going on but also has this dry, depressed side which makes him fascinating and often amusing when he delivers a witty line in an incredibly matter of fact manner.
Now the thing about "Off Season" is that as it plays you think you know where it is going, then you think maybe you don't before being smacked around the face with a surprise which just makes you smile. It is some clever writing and Glenn Gers deserves applause for writing such an intelligent screenplay but actor Bruce Davison who has a small part in the movie also deserves praise for his solid and unfussy direction which allows the writing and actors to convey the emotion rather than some over the top staging.
What this all boils down to is that "Off Season" is not going to be everyone's cup of tea as it is a dry Christmas movie. But it is a clever one with good writing, good performances and a dry wit which makes you simply smile when the movie ends.