Directed by Francis Abbey
Starring Demetrius Parker, Bridget Devlin Burke, Jim Murphy, Vicki Hartford, Jenna St. John, Danny Gavigan
Ten Sundays Production
In the brief DVD feature “The $1,000 Pitch” director Francis Abbey describes the story for his film Boxing Day as a cross between the Spencer Tracy/Katherine Hepburn/Sidney Poitier classic Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Seinfeld co-creator Larry David’s HBO comedy series Curb Your Enthusiasm, and if he would also throw in Meet the Parents, Everybody Loves Raymond , and the original British version of The Office (not to mention the aforementioned Seinfeld), then that would sum up Boxing Day perfectly.
Sometimes great humor can be mined from ordinary people finding themselves in the most uncomfortable situations and how they attempt to deal with them or get out of them. There are a lot of moments like that packed into Boxing Day‘s tight 86-minute running time, moments when you’re not sure whether or not to laugh or bury your face in your hands and slowly leave the room without bumping into any furniture. Needless to say this is a hilarious film that takes its slightly incendiary premise (and it’s not incendiary for the reason you think) and milks every possible joke and idea from it until the finale when the lead characters collapse on a couch totally exhausted, and you will probably want to do the same.
Elementary school teacher Emmy Towne (Bridget Devlin Burke) is coming home for Christmas, or rather the day after Christmas, to visit her family and this year she’s bringing a special guest: her loving chemical engineer boyfriend Darryl (Demetrius Parker). Darryl is interested in getting the opportunity to meet Emmy’s family but she is less than thrilled because two of her last three boyfriends she introduced to her family were driven away by their insanity. Plus she hasn’t told them that Darryl is black because they’re a bit bigoted. This doesn’t faze the cool-headed, understanding Darryl so our happy couple make the journey home. It’s not long after they get to the Towne family house that Emmy’s uptight mother Beverly (Vicki Hartford) sees Darryl and screams for help and her podiatrist father Martin (Jim Murphy) attacks him with a golf club thinking he’s robbing the place. Despite this intense breaking of the ice Darryl takes it all in stride as Emmy’s parents attempt to prove to him that they’re not racists. Martin tells Darryl stories about how he brought aid and comfort to the shoeless people of Africa while wearing a shirt with an African design (the kind you can buy at the mall). Beverly, knowing absolutely knowing nothing about modern music, buys Darryl CDs from bands with the word “black” in their name, such as The Black Crowes and Black Sabbath. The more her parents attempt to “relate” to the hapless Darryl the more defensive Emmy becomes, and that’s before her sullen sister Grace (Jenna St. John) and minimum security prison escapee brother Rick (Danny Gavigan) enter the picture. Before the day is through many secrets will be revealed and the calm and collected Darryl will find his steely resolve put to the ultimate test.
Shot on a mini-digital video camera for $2,000 over the course of eighty hours in Alexandria, Virginia (not too far from my hometown of Richmond) Francis Abbey’s film Boxing Day, which he co-wrote with stars Murphy and St. John, isn’t so much a story about race relations as it is about unlikely family bonding and the strain of being politically correct in an age where racism is not a thing of the past no matter how hard certain people believe it is. The film unfolds over one extraordinarily uncomfortable day inside a house designed to be a womb of cozy domesticity where a group of strongly diverse personalities clash and mix rather awkwardly. The use of digital video instead of film to shoot the film with (courtesy of director of photography Matt Hines) gives Boxing Day a warming intimacy meant to lull you into a state of calm, and that’s when the script’s caustic satire strikes and takes hold. The film’s premise is a goldmine for comedic humor of many shades, from subtle (The Townes have a “Hillary Clinton for President” sign on their front lawn and Beverly changes into a Barack Obama shirt after Darryl arrives-a commentary of the divide among liberals during last year’s Democratic primaries?) to potentially grotesque (one can only imagine the horrors within Martin’s photo album of foot diseases) to rapid fire dialogue driven humor worthy of a screwball comedy (Rick’s interrogation of Darryl). There are so many great comedic set pieces in Boxing Day and what makes them so memorable is that they’re driven by interesting ideas and sharp, witty dialogue that’s endlessly quotable, such as an impromptu therapy session between Martin and Grace (whom he’s always referring to as Gale for reasons that become clear in this scene) fueled by marijuana and presided over by Darryl.
There’s a wonderful story at the film’s core of a family living in hopeless denial set free by their prejudices and perversity as long-buried secrets surface, the biggest one providing the engine that drives the manic third act. Yet even with so much going on, the pace of Boxing Day remains steady and confident whereas most films would cave in to utter stupidity as they get closer towards the end. Besides all that it has a theme that will always be relevant. It’s fascinating that the people in Emmy’s family don’t consider themselves racist even though when they all first saw Darryl they either suspected the worst or couldn’t comprehend that Emmy would be in love with a black man for any reason other to get back at her repressive and annoying parents. If we deny the fact that we are still very prejudiced as a people how can we can learn from those flaws and improve ourselves? The day that starts to happen we may finally start to make baby steps in the direction of world peace as this microcosm of society proves in the end.
Besides the jewel of a screenplay the best part of Boxing Day is its top notch ensemble cast. My pick for the standouts are Bridget Devlin Burke as Emmy and Demetrius Parker as Darryl, the normal romantic couple at the center of this domestic nightmare. Burke crafts a sympathetic character even though the movie requires her to be on the defensive for most of the time and anybody with embarrassing relatives can relate to her plight. Parker on the other hand is put in the unenviable position of being the outsider amidst Emmy’s nutzoid family. It’s a heavy burden to bear and the actor plays it cool and together without ever appearing close to losing his cool. Parker’s gift for giving great slow burn comes in handy during Darryl’s various encounters with the Townes and he even gets to slip in a few double takes that say more about his character’s state of mind than a pageful of dialogue ever could. The rest of the cast all score equally well. Jim Murphy and Vicki Hartford provide fountains of humiliation as Emmy’s clueless parental units. They cleverly underplay their parts, never going over the top into the realm of broad comedy. Jenna St. John has a few priceless scenes as Emmy’s moody, non-conformist, suspiciously Asian-looking sister Grace, finding the inner sadness to what could have been a one-note bitch. But it’s Danny Gavigan who scores some of the biggest laughs as brother Rick, the pathetic office supply thief who can’t help but ask Darryl unusual questions about how to create bulletproof plastic and the racially-proper usage of the word “boy.”
Special credit must be given to co-writer and director Francis Abbey for using the technical limitations of the $2,000 budget to its advantage, crafting a naturalistic film reminiscent of the cinema of John Cassavetes. Even the score by Noah Potter feels suited to the low-key material, including a title song sung by Jim Murphy. Boxing Day is a perfectly written, directed, and acted comedy gem that is ripe for discovery. If you’re looking for a great adult comedy, this is one of the better ones out there.
The people at Ten Sundays Productions, the company responsible for Boxing Day, has put together a fine DVD which I assume they’re distributing independently since there’s no listing for the disc at Amazon or any other online store. If you can find it I highly recommend picking it up. The film was shot in a widescreen aspect ratio of 1.78:1 that comes through strong on the DVD, but the soundtrack suffers from occasional drop-outs. Since it wasn’t a regular occurrence I didn’t let it ruin my enjoyment.
Ten Sundays has even assembled some fine bonus features. The fun begins with a trio of alternate audio tracks. Two of them are full-length audio commentaries: the first with director Francis Abbey and actors Jim Murphy, Demetrius Parker, and Vicki Hartford, the second a solo track with Abbey. Both commentaries are worthy and highly enjoyable listens for students of low-budget filmmaking and fans of the movie.
The final alternate track is an audio recording of the audience watching the film during its premiere. I’ve seen this feature on the DVDs for Pieces and several Robert Rodriguez movies but seeing it on the DVD for this independent comedy was pretty interesting and dipping in and out of the track it’s clear the people watching it were having as much fun as I was.
Mentioned at the beginning of this review was a feature entitled “The $1,000 Pitch” that runs for about two minutes and was made by Francis Abbey as a appeal to his supporters to help him raise the titular funds to make Boxing Day. It’s a short video, good enough for a single watch.
“Videopolis” (Five minutes) is a short film that Abbey made for a competition sponsored by the cable network FX, the same competition that spawned the series “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”. The short was a pitch for an ensemble comedy set in a video game store and features several members of the Boxing Day cast. Abbey also provides a commentary for the short.
Fourteen minutes of goofy outtakes and a theatrical trailer round out the package. The film’s pleasant poster art provides the cover for the DVD.
Boxing Day was a pleasant surprise and I’m glad to have seen it. It’s a wonderful human comedy smartly written and filled with terrific performances from an ensemble cast. I look forward to future productions from the good people at Ten Sundays.
BAADASSSSS will return.