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Review: A Christmas Story (1983)

A Christmas Story (1983)

Directed by: Bob Clark

Premise: Set in the post-war era, young Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) tries to convince anyone who will listen that he wants a Red Rider BB Gun for Christmas. Meanwhile, Ralphie’s parents prepare for the holiday.

 What Works: A Christmas Story is an example of nostalgia done right. This picture was released in the early 1980s at a time when there was a popular yearning for an earlier, simpler, and less cynical era of American culture. Of course, like most nostalgia, that never really existed but movies such as Back to the Future and Grease successfully played to that trend. Filmmaker Bob Clark made a couple of movies that were set in the post-war years: the problematic sex comedy Porky’s and the decidedly more wholesome A Christmas Story. There is a link between these two films insofar as they take place among characters of the same generation but also because they question some of the mythology about the 1950s. Porky’s was about sexual misadventures at a time that was supposedly more virtuous (it wasn’t) while A Christmas Story poked fun at the suburban nuclear family enshrined in bland television sitcoms like Leave It to Beaver. Of the two films, A Christmas Story has the upper hand and it is an example of nostalgia done right. This is not a cynical film but it does offer a wry take on the post-war years. A Christmas Story both confirms and challenges the myth of the 1950s. It captures the era but doesn’t pine for it. The story is told from the point of view of a child and childhood is something most of us look back on fondly but don’t enjoy in the moment. Being a kid is a frustrating experience and A Christmas Story captures that while also having a laugh at the indignities of childhood. This is a coming of age story and the movie smartly connects its critique of this idealized period of American culture with the mythology around Christmas and Ralphie’s disillusionment. This movie threads a tricky needle by pointing out the mendacity and superficiality of so much of the culture—and especially Christmas—while still retaining a fondness for the holiday season. Much of the film’s success is due to its authentic characters. The movie is led by Peter Billingsley as Ralphie. The child actor gives a classic performance that perfectly matches Jean Shepherd’s narration. In a lot of movies, voice over is unnecessary and pretentious but the narration of A Christmas Story is essential and adds a lot to the movie’s impact. Melinda Dillon and Darren McGavin are also terrific as Ralphie’s parents. Their marriage has ups and downs throughout the story and they embody the tempered nostalgia that characterizes this movie. The humanity and likability of these characters makes them feel real and while A Christmas Story might be immediately about holidays of over half a century ago the movie is still quite relevant for contemporary viewers.

What Doesn’t: When A Christmas Story was initially released in 1983 the movie was a success but it wasn’t a hit. The film did modest business and received lukewarm reviews. After its debut on home video and especially after years of play on cable television, A Christmas Story cultivated an enthusiastic following and it has become one of the essential movies of the holiday season alongside feature films such as It’s a Wonderful Life and television specials like A Charlie Brown Christmas. In recent years A Christmas Story has so saturated the holiday season that it’s become overexposed. That’s not a fault of this movie and it will eventually be replaced by something else and therefore recapture its novelty.

DVD extras: Featurettes, a deleted scene, and a trailer.

Bottom Line: A Christmas Story has become a classic holiday title but there’s a lot more going on in the film than its wackiness. It has great characters and a self-aware style that speaks to a specific generational experience but the movie also has meaning for those of us born later.

Episode: #679 (December 24, 2017)