In the interest of full disclosure, I had the good fortune to meet Becoming Santa’s star, Jack, on the shuttle ferrying us from the horrendous labyrinthine beast of the Austin Convention Center to the heavenly outpost that is the Alamo Drafthouse. Yes, I know I’m mixing mythologies there, so bite me.
Anyway, I met and chatted with Jack before knowing whom he was or even that he had a documentary in the festival, and for those fifteen minutes we conversed, he was just as charming and articulate fellow as he comes across in Jeff Myers’ sweet little documentary.
So I met and liked the guy and ended up watching and liking his film, too. But the two likes are separate from each other; rest assured I’d tear it apart like an eel on a horse head if it were bad (as I well some other films whose directors I likewise met).
But Becoming Santa, like I said, is a sweet little documentary about a portly man who’d lost his Christmas spirit and decided to recapture it by putting his girth to good use and spending one yuletide season as Santa Claus—and not just the department store kind. Jack also volunteers as Santa for the Polar Express, rings bells for charity, and participates in a town’s annual tree-lighting ceremony. Cynical sniffers may detect a cheap moral and even cheaper sentiment underlying the film, but while the central message that the spreading of cheer is its own reward pervades, it’s never dwelled on too much.
More often we see the seamy underbelly of being Santa and come to appreciate just how damned hard a job it really it is. Case in point: Early on Jack enrolls in “Santa School” to be trained in the finer arts of the job (Rule 1: Always refer to them as “children”; never “kids”), and, as one of the impossible challenges the instructor poses to Jack, she plays a child whose Christmas wish is for Santa to assassinate Osama bin Laden (“Santa doesn’t kill people,” Jack replies).
We’re also treated to a brief history of Father Christmas, which, though not especially long, is nonetheless informative even to those who may consider themselves Christmas historians (one interviewee is a specialist on Christmas and Santa Claus during the American Civil War). These tidbits aren’t blindingly insightful, but they’re great cocktail trivia (did you know Coca-Cola adopted Santa in their advertisements to sell soft drinks during the winter time? Or that Santa suits come in “traditional”—your standard Santa garb—and “Coca-Cola”—with buttons down the front—varities?). Nothing particularly crucial to know, but it is interesting and helps toward understanding the genesis and evolution of Santa.
Myers also interviews a number of “professional” Santas to get a better idea of what compels them to dress up and volunteer (no easy task) each year. They’re important, but I think they tend to go on too long and repeat themselves. Most every one shares a similar reason for donning the red suit, and while it’s nice to know they’re all driven by the satisfaction of delivering good cheer, after a while, we get the point.
But in all, Becoming Santa deserves its audience award. It’s not the deepest nor best put together documentary of the festival, but it’s a SXSW pleasure that I’m glad wasn’t overlooked. There’s a lot of heart, but then there’s also Santa Claus walking slow-mo gangsta style.