Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale. Remember that title. If you’re the right kind of person, this title will become a beloved part of your Christmastime movie schedule for years to come. This is one of those sweet, weird, awesome little movies that will catch you by surprise and brighten up your whole moviegoing season, if you’ll let it (or if you can find it.)
Rare Exports is a little bit like what John Carpenter might do with a Christmas movie for kids, or what Tim Burton might do if he was raised in Finland instead of Southern California. Actually, the closest comparison is to the early work of Steven Spielberg, or, more specifically, those weirder side projects that Spielberg produced without directing himself. I’m talking about Gremlins, folks. For some of you, that’s got to be a mighty enticing prospect.
Rare Exports is based on a series of short films that the Helander brothers made about the truth behind what we know to be true about Santa Claus. (Watch them here and here!) Rare Exports has now been expanded into a feature film, and it’s a terrific surprise.
The movie opens with a richly-funded archaeological excavation of a dark, looming mountain in the wilds of northern Finland. It’s an ominous start, and writer-director Jalmari Helander smartly creates a mythic atmosphere in these early scenes. It’s not so terrible if you’re reminded of movies like Lord Of The Rings or The Thing in these early moments, because this isn’t the real world we know. It’s a movie real-world, wherein unbelievable things can enter a very believable world.
That believable world is the home of young Pietari (Onni Tommila) and his single father, Rauno (Jorma Tommila, Onni’s dad), a reindeer hunter. We actually meet Rauno first, as he’s setting some very sharp – and very illegal – animal traps, because something has been preying on the reindeer that he and his two business partners, Amimo and Piiparen, depend on for their sole source of income. The unconventional families at the heart of this family fable are one thing that distinguishes Rare Exports – Rauno looks not unlike Kris Kristofferson and the other two hunters, also single fathers, are similarly tough and weathered in appearance. This isn’t a world of women, let’s put it that way. This is a cold land where tough men are raising their children, and it turns out that children are particularly vulnerable to whatever’s been let loose from the mountain.
The Santa Claus that corporations have sold us isn’t the Santa Claus of this movie. The Santa Claus of this movie, as Pietari learns from avid reading once he starts to suspect what’s going on, is much less joyous and loud with a laugh. This Santa Claus, Pietari believes, is the reason why all of the local children have begun to go missing, on the eve of Christmas.
I loved going into Rare Exports without a concrete idea of what to expect, so I won’t rob you of the many surprises that this very fun, very clever movie has in store. Just when you think it’s a horror movie, just when you think it’s a fairy tale, just when you think it’s a kids’ movie, just when you think it’s a satire, it proves itself to be all of those things and none of them. It’s a thrill to see little Pietari unravel the secrets behind the real Santa Claus, and the way that the trio of badass dads ultimately have to defer to his wide-eyed belief in an unimaginable scenario. The threat is very real, but the movie itself is surprisingly bloodless, even innocent in spirit – that’s a very difficult thing to pull off successfully, and with such an impressive command of shifting tones, it will be interesting to see what Helander does next.
For now, we have Rare Exports, which is a wonderful treat for those of us who like our Christmas stories unconventional. As a movie, it looks great, all crisp and chilly and widescreen (courtesy of talented cinematographer Mika Orasmaa), and as a seasonal fable, it’s a romp and a spookfest and one of the most original Christmas movies I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing in quite a while.
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale is now in limited release. If you live in New York, you can find it playing at the IFC Center. I can’t recommend it highly enough!