The first ever Christmas film is generally acknowledged to be Santa Claus, an 1898 short from the innovative British film pioneer George Albert Smith. Since then, it’s fair to say that the genre has caught on, with a slew of new releases every winter and whole television channels dedicated to the cultural staple that is the Christmas movie.
You might, therefore, assume that everything that a Christmas film could possible do has already been done, and so it is a tribute to Onyx Keesha and B Danielle Watkins that, in The Higher Spirit, they have created a work which manages to be truly innovative and tell a Christmas story that, as far as I can recall, has never before been told.
The action centres around a queer, rainbow family where Pat (Ronnie Wood — not that one), one of the family’s two mums, intends to announce their transition to the assembled family members at Christmas. Their partner, Samantha (Zenja Dunn), does not approve and it is this conflict which forms the basis of the plot. Pat’s story is far from the only tale being told: narrative duties are shared among each of the five adopted siblings, making The Higher Spirit a true ensemble piece which, in turn, allows us, the audience, to believe that we are flies on the wall during a real family Christmas. This isn’t the easiest trick to pull off: if your Christmases are anything like mine, they’re characterised by people talking over each other or breaking into smaller groups conducting different conversations in separate parts of the room. In real life, you can hone in one one particular conversation but, on screen, there is always the danger of producing an indistinct hubbub where nothing is understood. The Higher Spirit manages to capture the chaos of the family Christmas without sacrificing sound quality on the altar of realism or, for that matter, vice-versa.
The Higher Spirit takes a bold look at some serious issues: as well as Pat’s intention to undergo a later-life transition, we have the morality of sex work, changing sexual preferences, homelessness and monogamy and it is a credit to to B Danielle Watkins and her cast and crew that none of this seems perfunctory. The dirt-smeared faces of some of the homeless people we meet during the final act were a bit too Dickensian street urchin for me, but that’s the tiniest of quibbles.
A slightly larger quibble is, I am afraid, the film’s attitude to God: the gentle word play of title refers to the family’s surname — Higher-Mills — and, of course, to a higher power (or “spirit”). I understand that your average American wears their religious heart on their religious sleeve far more openly than we more reticent Brits, but I do have a problem with comfortably off people “thanking God” for their good fortune while, down the road, the homeless are convinced that God will deliver them from penury if only they continue to show faith. In my humble opinion, humane welfare, health and housing policies are more likely to be a cure for poverty than prayer. What’s more, I found the notion, mooted on more than one occasion, that it was God who delivered the family’s children into the loving hands of their adoptive parents offensive; are those less fortunate children who do not manage to find adoptive parents less deserving of God’s good grace, or do they just need to pray harder?
If this were a British film I would find this unforgivable but, despite our (more or less) common language and hands of friendship across the Atlantic, we have to accept that the Americans and the British do God in very different ways. This is why – despite my reservations – we should not allow cultural differences with regard to religion to stand in the way of appreciating this well crafted and skilfully performed piece of work as a welcome addition to the Christmas movie canon.
The Higher Spirit is available now on Lesflicks.
Read our review of the trans-themed Lola and the Sea.