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The Independent Critic

Melissa Revels, Mike Dobrzelecki, Michael Malone, Raymond Kester, Derik Zooashkiyani, Cindy Maples
Michael Malone
Michael Malone and Joshua Hull
62 Mins.

 "Bethlehem" is For All of Us Dancing That Line Between Naughty and Nice 
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If you've been a fan of my writing for any length of time, then you already likely know the truth.

I hate Christmas.

I suppose that's to be expected.

I grew up without Christmas. Yeah, my mother was one of those Jehovah's Witnesses. Trust me, they don't celebrate ANYTHING.

I think the closest I ever really got to celebrating anything close to the holiday spirit was likely during one of my many hospitalizations while scarfing down that scrumptious cafeteria-processed holiday turkey dinner and receiving the customary visits from the hospital's cheer guild and a well-meaning choir from some local church with an endless supply of hilariously melodramatic Christmas carols.

Did I ever tell you about the time that the hospital's cheer guild gifted me with this beautiful pair of hand-woven socks for Christmas a mere week after the first of two foot amputations?

Yeah, I hate Christmas.

I probably shouldn't mention the fact that both my wife and child died in mid-December.

Then, there was that Christmas Eve suicide attempt.

In case you're wondering, Santa doesn't climb down the chimney at your friendly neighborhood psych ward. I guess the assumption is you've been naughty.

Heck, I probably hate Christmas Eve more than I hate Christmas.

You know what I really hate?

There's still something there. You know what I mean? It's a creepy, crawly kind of thing. It's kind of like lice, but more infectious. It's not quite Christmas spirit - they have vaccines for that. There's just this twisted part of me that, somehow, despite everything still manages to buy into the idea of a truly joyful Christmas.

I see you, by the way. If you dare say "You still believe!," I will seriously fuck you up.

I'm not kidding.

I have a feeling that Bethlehem director Michael Malone understands where I'm coming from when I say "I hate Christmas, but I just can't resist it." That's the feeling one largely gets while watching Bethlehem, which Malone co-wrote with Central Indiana filmmaker Joshua Hull. The film centers around two thirtysomethings, Bridget (Melissa Revels) and Michael (Malone), returning to the family abode for what is destined to be yet another dysfunctional family Christmas classic weekend with mom (Cindy Maples), their brother Bobby (Mike Dobrzelecki), dad (Raymond Kester), grandma (Joann King White), cousin Bryan (Derik Zooashkiyani), and uncle Raymond (Rich Ragains) along with a few semi-unexpected guests.

Bethlehem gels around the performance of Dobrzelecki, a cross between Animal House's Flounder and Chris Farley as Bobby, who is likely the kind of guy you think about when you think about that computer geek sitting in his basement masturbating to anime and Twinkies.

Admit it. You got the visual.

Dobrzelecki is an absolute delight here with a sort of twisted vulnerability that makes you love him, laugh at him, then feel guilty because you laughed at him. Dobrzelecki, that name would be impossible to spell if I were high, has an awesome ability to meet the energy of those around him, which is no small task in a film that bounces around everything from absurdist comedy to family melodrama to stoner humor to Capra-esque sentimentality.

Bethlehem, which only recently had its Indiana premiere during a one-night screening at Shelbyville's Strand Theatre, runs at a mere 62-minute running time yet Malone keeps things going at a solid clip that leaves you wishing for just a little more time with this ensemble cast. Constructed in the style of such 90's holiday classics as Christmas Vacation and Planes, Trains & Automobiles, Bethlehem may also very well remind of you those cold winter nights you spent gathered around the television with your family gleefully watching the holiday mishaps of families that actually seemed to be more screwed up than your own.

Much of the territory covered by Malone and Hull's script isn't necessarily new, but they attack the material with a refreshingly unfiltered commitment to authenticity in both the film's darker and more heartfelt moments.

While directing his first feature film, Malone also manages to shine as Michael, whose life is completely falling apart but who approaches his parents' driveway with a false yet almost heartbreakingly hopeful optimism that mask the hurt beneath the biting humor. The same is true for Revels as Bridget, the kind of young woman we likely all know who seems to make all the wrong decisions but who is trying so damn hard to get it all right that you never stop cheering for her.

Cindy Maples and Raymond Kester may have the most challenging roles, though Kester is certainly given a few more personality twists to play with here. Maples has always had a gift for weaving together heart and hurt and her turn here is very much the film's emotional core as her now adult children begin to piece things together and become determined to give their mother her long desired idyllic family Christmas.

It's the thought that counts, right?

Kester, as well, serves up just a glimmer of edginess that makes you kind of want to hate him while always having the feeling that there's something else going on.

While they are in some ways tasked with portraying caricatures, Derik Zooashkiyani, Rich Ragains and Joann King White serve up some of the film's heartiest and most incredible laughs. Zooashkiyani is dark and absurd and a little frightening as Bryan, whose arrival for the family Christmas is rather unexpected, while Rich Ragains sort of weaves together a little bit of Stuart Smalley as Uncle Raymond, whose flair could have easily been played for laughs but Ragains goes just a tad deeper and gives us a guy who is twisted, sweet, funny and, yeah, more than a little flamboyant. As Grandma, Joann King White absolutely kills it.

Bethlehem is beautifully lensed by David M. Brewer with a vibrance and clarity that one doesn't quite expect from a film with an estimated production budget considerably lower than six figures.

Filmed over the course of four days, Bethlehem flows with an energy and spirit that makes you wonder just how much this story resonated with Malone's gifted ensemble cast. Malone, one of the nation's top up-and-coming comics now living in L.A., clearly understands that sometimes humor is found in the silence and in what's not said as much as what is said.

Currently on the film festival circuit, Bethlehem may not make you scream out 'It's a wonderful life" but there's a mighty fine chance you'll find yourself screaming "Hey, that's my life!"

For the record, I still fucking hate Christmas.

Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic  

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