Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Doc Watch: Santa Camp (2022)

Watched:  12/3/2022
Format:  HBOmax
Viewing:  First
Director:  Nick Sweeney

The basic concept for Santa Camp (2022) contains all the volatility you'd expect of a movie that decides to use the familiar cultural touchstone of Santa Claus and the people who play him in malls, parades, personal appearances, etc...  to explore modern social wars and challenges of diversity and inclusivity.  

The movie clearly has a POV, but it's also one that is never stated directly by the filmmakers - this is a doc that lets people be themselves for good or ill on camera.  So, it lives in editorial choices.  Who knows what was left on the cutting room floor?  Maybe some stuff was worse?  Maybe items that were innocuous are cherry picked for context?  But when you're letting Proud Boys speak for themselves, it's hard to say how much nuance you're losing.  

Opening with a meeting of a grand council of Santa's of New England, a role and career choice for aging white men who have a very certain look, we get an idea of who has been a Santa - who embodies jolly ol' St. Nick in our physical space rather than paintings and cartoons.  To my surprise, this group of very similar older guys have already decided that maybe Santa needs more options for the public than just older, white, paunchy men, and they're in agreement that they need to start diversifying by inviting new recruits to their annual weekend retreat known as "Santa Camp".  

The doc follows the stories of (a) a 30-something Black gentleman from Arkansas who is reacting to a stars-and-bars flying neighbor sending him a semi-threatening letter when he put up an inflatable Black Santa in his yard.  A big guy, he's decided the best way to win is to become a Black Santa for Arkansas.  The second (b) is Trans Santa, a trans man and his partner (Dr. Claus - this Mrs. Claus has her PhD).  And (c) a young man with developmental disabilities who is into Santa somewhat the way I'm into Superman.  Game recognizes game.  But this guy wants to be Santa in a parade like you or I want a million dollars.  And - I would guess a later addition, (d) a Mrs. Claus who is a retired aviation engineer and knows how to go toe-to-toe with her generation's chauvinism.

Social media and cultural bubbles are more implied than explored or stated explicitly.  But, like, look.  If you're going to airdrop the subjects into the middle of a bunch of old white guys who were of even the most lefty persuasion during their prime - their language and context is not going to match what the kids are up to.  It's a culture clash, but it's depicted as "these guys suck" in a way that felt a bit graceless.  

That's not to say they can't show what happened, or that anyone can't ask or demand they can use their pronoun of choice, etc...   But the result is that film clumsily walks a tightrope between showing what marginalized people put up with and shaming old dudes for their ignorance, including (especially?) when they're trying on a scale from "doing the work" to "generally welcoming".

As someone living squarely between the olds and the youngs, neither side's stances surprised me, but by not having any commentary in any way on what it's like in an environment where one is othered and *why* the behaviors are a challenge, it just kinda doesn't work.  The filmmakers' lack of curiosity or ability to delve deeper than what we see is... weird.  And frames everyone not using the language and POV of a very online lefty as clearly a problem.

In their midst, there's also a Mrs. Claus rebellion brewing.  We learn of a shocking pay discrepancy going on between Santa's and Mrs. Clauses, and if you want to see weird entitlement on display, look no further than how some of the Santa's think of Mrs. Claus.  To be honest, I was far more shocked by the treatment of the Mrs. Clauses than by almost anything else in the film (which mostly goes how you'd think once you have the set ups).  Anyway, when you get to the zamboni scene, you'll know where I officially lost my mind with a Santa.

The back 1/2 to 1/3rd of the film follows four subjects home, and that's when I feel like the movie actually works much better.  We can see the Santas in action, what they put up with, what it means to succeed on your own terms.  And you can see what real prejudice and hate looks like as Proud Boys try to interrupt the evening with Trans Santa, and a minivan of Lauren Boeberts arrives to jerk themselves off about how - by sitting idling in a parking lot and tik-toking - they're doing the Lord's work (they are not.  Jesus spoke to me and He is ashamed of these hateful dumb-asses and wishes them to review their Gospels).  

At the end of the day, the film could have/ should have been a multi-part series.  There are times the sprawling nature of the material means the filmmakers wrestle with how many directions they want to pursue.  The doc is stuck and unable to go further than as deep as a thin layer, failing to investigate or gets at the roots of anything.  But it also turns out Santa Camp is a weekend retreat, and it's just not enough time for anything to really happen (and it does not help that 80% of the people we see at the camp are indistinguishable) - and it's likely SOP older guy cluelessness was what they got and it just wasn't much.

I don't want to spoil the feel-good highlights.   It's a watchable film and generally has a positive slant.  But it's also one more streaming platform doc that feels like the doc isn't really there, but we're releasing it, anyway.  

No comments: