‘Tis the season for less than merry holiday films.
Four Christmases serves up a selfish couple forced to spend time with their inane in-laws. The French drama A Christmas Tale packs more family dysfunction than a month’s worth of The Osbournes.
The least jolly of them all, yet undoubtedly the best, is Where God Left His Shoes, a new drama available in select cities and via participating video on demand services.
The yuletide spirit isn’t front and center here, but it will sure make you feel grateful for the roof over your head.
John Leguizamo stars as Frank Diaz, a broke boxer trying to make ends meet during the holiday season. He just lost a lucrative boxing gig — and his New York City apartment — all in one day.
That leaves his exasperated but loyal wife (Leonor Valera) and their two children, Christina (Samantha Rose) and Justin (David Castro), homeless. The local shelter looks to be their home for the holidays until an inexpensive Bronx apartment becomes available on Christmas Eve. But Frank has to prove he’s employed to seal the deal, and he usually works off the books — or in the ring.
Frank is a real charmer, someone who can distract his children from the horrors of poverty. But he’s got too much pride for his own good, and it often gets the better of him. He also must maneuver around his inflated sense of machismo, and a scene in which he explains why he never tells his stepson “I love you” is priceless.
Shoes doesn’t fit snugly in any film category. It’s hardly a typical Christmas release, and it’s a film about poverty that lacks a political component. It may bear some similarities to the Will Smith hit The Pursuit of Happyness, but the comparisons start and end with the main character’s impoverished state.
You can find greater similarities to the new critic’s darling Wendy and Lucy. That film serves up a bracing look at a woman (Michelle Williams) barely getting by in America.
Yet Shoes isn’t as dour, or as dogmatic, as Wendy and Lucy even though it’s equally grim. Frank and his family have lion-sized hearts. They simply won’t give up no matter how daunting the challenge. You know a Hallmark ending isn’t in the cards, but the Diaz family won’t be counted out.
That same pluck isn’t as discernible in Wendy and Lucy, an otherwise fine dramatic piece.
What makes Shoes so much more than a seasonal melodrama is the reality lurking between the lines. The Diazes feel like a family, one with all the flaws, hopes, and squabbles of any clan down on its luck. The easy banter between the leads is never forced or hollow. The rhythms on display almost feels like improv — there isn’t a false note to be found.
Leguizamo works nonstop in both film and television, and his 2008 has been particularly busy. We’ve already seen him in Righteous Kill, Miracle at St. Anna, and, most recently, Nothing Like the Holidays.
Suffice to say his performance here is the best of his bustling career. His character is quick to anger and has a criminal past that dogs him at every turn. He’s also a con man, able to tell a believable lie both to himself and anyone willing to listen. The actor handles every facet of Frank with a combination of nobility and sorrow.
Leonor Valera is just as impressive, never letting her character slide into the clichéd role of the harried wife. She’s fierce one minute, mothering the next. It’s shattering to watch her swallow her pride long enough to do a “dine and dash” to save her family a few extra dollars.
Yet the exchanges between Frank and Justin carry the film. The youngster tags along with Frank when it’s time to look for a job. They bicker, fight, and jump the subway system’s turnstiles together. Their travails only bring them closer together.
Writer/director Salvatore Stabile captures a New York we rarely see on film. It’s not shot through Woody Allen’s idealized lens, nor is this the Big Apple from all those formulaic romantic comedies.
This New York is a cold, unforgiving place to the less fortunate, but there’s always another opportunity waiting around the corner, another job opening in the New York Post’s classified section. All you need is some hustle and an occasional break.
Stabile’s sparse film resume includes writing stints on The Sopranos and Rescue Me, and he clearly was taking copious notes while working on both gritty productions.
Where God Left His Shoes ends on a humbling, but consistent note, leaving audiences with plenty to be thankful for this holiday season — including this seasonal gem.