“Herb was a … difficult man. To be honest, I hated him. But when he put on this mask, he became something that I loved. So what do you do with that?”
Kringle Time is a clever black comedy about understanding our childhood heroes and moving past them … and about how fucking hard that can be — particularly when nobody else seems to care about how much something that seems meaningless to them has meant to you.
Jerry (Benny Elledge) grew up in a broken home in Goshen, somewhere. It’s a small town. Maybe I missed the state name somewhere along the line, automatically assuming Goshen, Indiana, which is as “somewhere” a place as any other Goshen in the United States. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that Goshen is a “somewhere” with a small-town public access studio.
Goshen Public Access hosts “Kringle Time,” a children’s show with all the usual trappings: a cuddly costumed protagonist; songs and dances performed by artistic local teens; and a hometown devotion developed over generations of residents loving this little thing that makes their town seem special. Because of his difficult upbringing, Jerry loved Kringle most of all — so much so that, in adulthood, he became one of the producers at Goshen Public Access and also one of the few men to whom Herb (Vernon Wells), the cantankerous man under the Kringle costume, would listen (albeit with a lot of cajoling).
Then Herb dies. On camera. Live. The role is vacated. Jerry has to deal with two things: his desire to become Kringle, even if it means suppressing his own vision for the character; and the disturbing secrets about Herb only he becomes privy to after opening a safe found in the old Kringle dressing room — secrets that complicate the nature of Kringle as a local celebrity and as a character.
Daphne (Alyssa Keegan) and Mayor Jorkins (Jeff Wincott) are the two figureheads opposing Jerry and his tumultuous experience in trying to change Kringle or expose the secrets. Of course, Jerry himself is deeply conflicted.
Matthew Lucas (who directed and has a story credit) and Gillies (who wrote the screenplay) do an excellent job of filling what could be a pretty dour story with constant, clever dark humor. Jerry’s a weird character, but the joke is never on him. His situation is deeply relatable. Revisiting and understanding the stories that influenced us in childhood and realizing their flaws is a universal experience — especially now, as new past misdeeds come to light about beloved performers, directors, athletes and authors every day. Kringle Time is smart enough to not necessarily provide an answer about whether people can separate the art from the artist, but it lets the question hang over Jerry’s head as it often hangs over ours.
The progressive reveals of Jerry’s unique, strange vision for Kringle are endlessly rewarding, too. When we take in a character like Kringle and make it part of us, we inevitably personalize it and use it to work through other issues in our lives. Again, kudos to the creative team for making Jerry feel like a fleshed-out and relatable character. He has a partner. He has friends. He knows people. We’re all obsessed fans now. It’s nice to see a dark comedy embrace that as a relatable thing rather than try to play it too cool or, worse, sneering.
I couldn’t help think of Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a film I loved quite a lot, and how Kringle Time feels like a darker but no less insightful inversion of that film. In Neighborhood, an adult who let himself become cynical is able to heal himself by connecting with a childhood public broadcasting idol who truly is everything he could have ever imagined. Kringle Time is about an adult who never stops believing in his idol despite knowing the dark side of things and comes to terms with what the show meant to him … and how it might still allow him to move forward as a person. It never feels like a cynical shit-take on childhood heroes or public broadcasting despite some pretty funny jokes. Instead, like Neighborhood, it takes seriously the impact of this type of character. It just goes to darker, funnier, weirder places with it — much funnier, much darker and certainly way weirder.
It’s a blast, and a thoughtful, relevant one at that.
Kringle Time will be available on VOD on July 27.