It seems like every year brings us at least one film that deserves to be a Christmas classic. This year, that film is Christmas for a Dollar, a Covenant Communications release that also served as a rather extraordinary collaboration between Catholics and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
The film's story, penned by Sally Meyer, is based upon a children's book of the same name that was written by Gale Sears and illustrated by Ben Sowards. The story takes place in the Depression Era year of 1934 and centers around the Kamp family, a family already struggling with young Norman's (Jacob Buster) polio when the family's matriarch unexpectedly dies leaving William (Brian Krause, television's Charmed) to raise his family on his own including Verna (Danielle Chuchran), a promising scholar nearing high school graduation and silently longing to be a nurse, along with Ruthie (Ruby Jones), Warren (James Gaisford), and Russell (Ethan Hunt).
As you can likely gather from the film's title, much of the story centers around $1, the amount that William is able to gather together to ensure that each of his family members has a gift come Christmas. Inviting each of his children to draw a name out of a hat and with fishes and loaves very much present as a guiding inspiration, the Kamp family begins a journey that will help each of them realize the true meaning of Christmas giving.
If you need for your films to have the usual Hollywood distractions of excessive special effects and pop culture comedy, then there's truly no question that you'll find Christmas for a Dollar to be a formulaic and even boring experience.
I feel sorry for you.
Christmas for a Dollar is the kind of film that truly puts "family" into what it means to be a family film and "faith" into what it means to be a faith-based film. With simplicity and enough heart that I found myself shedding a tear on more than one occasion, Christmas for a Dollar has enough confidence in its story to simply tell it.
The film also benefits from a tremendous ensemble cast helmed by Brian Krause as the family's patriarch, a man whose commitment to his family is unwavering even as his grief at times becomes overwhelming and dominates over his reason. Krause nicely portrays William as a man both believably warm and paternal with just the right amount of grief informing his words and actions. The film's true gem may very well be Danielle Chuchran, whose performance as 18-year-old Verna is filled with such delightful warmth and humanity and gentleness that you can't help but hope that she becomes the nurse she is obviously meant to be.
Christmas for a Dollar also features Heather Beers, an actress I first discovered in the wonderful Christian Vuissa film Baptists at Our Barbecue and found myself convinced the actress would continue to blossom and, indeed, Beers once again impresses as the small town's schoolteacher. It should be noted that the entire ensemble is strong, with young Jacob Buster admirably portraying a young boy with polio and largely overcoming my concerns that the filmmaker chose to not cast an actor with a disability in the part. I would be remiss to not mention the other key members of the cast including a feisty and adorable Ruby Jones as young Ruthie, James Gaisford as eldest brother Warren, Ethan Hunt as Russell, and Nancy Stafford, who provides much of the film's conflict-in-motion as Mrs. Rathbone.
There is so much warmth and commitment within the Kamp family that at times it feels like perhaps we find ourselves up on Walton Mountain once again, a place of many treasured childhood memories of my own and a place that exemplified this kind of simplicity, warmth and humanity.
Christmas for a Dollar is directed with tremendous patience and an eye toward naturalism by John Lyde (Christmas Oranges), working from a script by Sally Meyer, who also penned Lyde's Christmas Oranges. While it is true that the film for the most part follows a fairly predictable formula, especially for those familiar with the source material, there are times when following a formula works and this is definitely one of those times.
Christmas for a Dollar also benefits greatly from Jimmy Schafer's heart-tugging yet non-intrusive original music that serves as a terrific companion for the family along with D.P. Airk Thaugbaer's straightforward yet effective lensing.
Christmas for a Dollar has been playing throughout this 2013 Christmas season on Up TV, a network devoted to uplifting programming, and will air at noon on Christmas Eve. If you have access to Up TV programming, I definitely recommend this film as a great way to start your Christmas Eve day. The Dove-approved fill will soon be available for home video from Covenant Communications and would make a wonderful addition to your holiday tradition. Christmas for a Dollar is rated PG for "some mean behavior" and will be a meaningful view for the entire family.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic