If you've been one of my readers for any length of time, then you're likely already aware that I'm one of those people who just sort of struggles through the holiday season. I wouldn't so much say that I hate Christmas, because I truly don't.
I grew up without the holiday, an end result from growing up in a home with a Jehovah's Witness mother. When you add in some significant childhood traumas and losses occurring around the holidays, including the loss of my wife and newborn daughter, it's just a time of year that brings up lots of intense emotions that seem at odds with the lightness a "merry" of the Christmas season.
I try. Mostly, I fail.
So, it's more than a little alarming to acknowledge just how much Dana Nachman's joy-filled Dear Santa succeeded in touching my heart and tapping into my oft-buried Christmas season where my only true holiday tradition has long been my annual watching of a horror film on Christmas morning.
In short, Dear Santa is simply wonderful.
Recently released by IFC Films in theaters and On Demand, Dear Santa continues Nachman's remarkable ability to capture the human spirit in all its glory. The director of equally remarkable documentaries Batkid Begins and Pick of the Litter, Nachman's Dear Santa is just about everything that you want a film called Dear Santa to be.
The truth is that I sat down to watch Dear Santa on a day when I could feel those creepy crawly darker emotions of Christmas starting to arrive, a day when my cynical inner-elf would have rather been watching Santa Slay than Dear Santa.
Dear Santa won me over.
Each year, U.S. Post Offices nationwide receive hundreds of thousands of letters to Santa. Dear Santa takes us inside the United States Postal Service's Operation Santa, an organized and safe way to respond to these letters and for the public to safely adopt these letters and make children's dreams come true. Nachman focuses her camera on Operation Santa's various centers from huge metropolitan ones like New York City to smaller towns where the Post Office is the heart of the community and Operation Santa helps to put even more heart into the holidays.
Nachman's work here is glorious, joy-filled and celebratory of the human spirit while also recognizing the often heartbreaking and richness of the human experience behind the letters. The beauty of Nachman's work here is that she also maintained the integrity of the holiday, Santa's secrets are well maintained here while all of the volunteers and helpers tend to refer to themselves as elves who take their orders from Santa.
You can tell it. They believe.
Dear Santa captured the Best Documentary Feature premiere at Indy's own Heartland International Film Festival, not particularly surprising given the film lives and breathes its Heartland roots. The letters are as relentlessly adorable as you'd expect, kids asking for animals and dragons and a limo ride and, yes, even at times those endearingly wonderful letters where a child asks for nothing for themselves but everything for their family.
Oh my word.
We watch as non-profit organizations are formed entirely because small groups of people want to support Operation Santa on a grander scale, while we also watch as classrooms adopt children and children learn over and over and over again they can make a difference in the world and for another human being.
Dave Tweedie's original music is spry and energized throughout, while Nachman weaves together seasonal animation and an engaging countdown throughout the film as Christmas nears and lives become changed.
There's simply no denying that Dear Santa is a feel-good documentary, an inspirational and life-affirming journey where kindness is the rule and love wins over and over again. In a pandemic-influenced world, it's almost jarring to watch a film that so consistently feels like a full-on bear hug but, if we're being honest, I think a good majority of us could use a full-on bear hug these days.
I don't know that I can say that Dear Santa somehow has shapeshifted my Christmas experience, but I can say that it has brought me some balance and reminded me of the wonder and beauty and hope of this holiday season that I can sometimes easily forget. It's a beautiful little film and the kind of film I can't help but think we could all really use this holiday season.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic