Review by Sean Boelman
Indie musicals are a tricky prospect — they can either be incredibly charming, or massively above their means. Thomas Torrey’s Long December doesn’t have a lot of substance to it, and feels like a copy of other, more nuanced movies in many ways. Still, thanks to an excellent lead performance and an incredible amount of sincerity, the film manages to hammer home its emotional beats surprisingly well.
The movie follows a struggling musician who is desperately trying to keep the dream alive as another year comes to a close in the holiday season. Those looking for a cheery Christmas musical should look elsewhere, as Torrey’s film is quite melancholy, but it packs an unexpectedly potent sense of poignancy.
If one were looking to classify Long December, it’s probably easiest to compare it to the work of John Carney — especially Once, in terms of both plot and pacing. It’s essentially a hang-out movie set in the music world, where what happens is much less important than the music and the vibes it creates.
That’s not to say the movie is plotless — the core thread is about the protagonist’s journey as a struggling musician — but what story there is sticks extremely closely to the conventional beats of the genre. Still, the film is told with such an earnest heart that it’s hard not to be moved by it at least a bit.
And even if the character lacks substance, lead Stephen Williams brings a lot of personality and relatability to the role. Beyond being a solid actor, Stephen Williams is also a damn good singer. Given that so much of the movie is simply him singing, it’s heavily dependent on his stage presence to work, and he has more than enough of that to go around.
The film features original songs by Williams and John Mark McMillan (who also has a supporting role in the movie), and while they are fine, they’re so similar stylistically that they often blend together. In fact, some of the astoundingly beautiful renditions of classic Christmas carols by Williams stand out more than the originals.
From a technical standpoint, it’s impressive what Torrey was able to do with obviously limited resources. Again, the music does much of the heavy lifting here, but the way in which these performances are shot is strong and often captivating. One scene early in the film has some particularly impressive use of lighting that will draw viewers into the story.
Long December is a deceptively simple movie. It’s really just a bunch of Americana music and covers of Christmas carols tied together with a loose, cliched narrative. And yet, against the odds, the film manages to be pretty stirring. As an indie musical, that’s all it could ask for.
Long December is screening at the 2023 Heartland International Film Festival.