My appreciation for writer/director Thomas Torrey's Long December may very well have started before the opening credits had even rolled, the title Long December immersing itself in my heart and mind not unlike that 1996 Counting Crows song of a similar name that I still play at full volume nearly thirty years later any time it unexpectedly pops on my car radio.
The song has always given me a rather pleasant sense of melancholy, a melancholy that returns over and over again throughout Torrey's equally immersive and engaging film that is having its world premiere this week at Indy's Academy Award-qualifying Heartland International Film Festival. The Americana-infused film follows Gabe (newcomer Stephen Williams of the band Jude Moses), a seemingly always struggling musician who's approaching yet another December sensing that time is starting to run out and his dreams are starting to give way to the realities of life. When his rock star cousin Darren Knight (platinum selling artist John Mark McMillan) offers him a spot in the band on the last show of his tour, Gabe can't help but wonder if his break is just around the corner. It's the kind of idealism, the "what if," with which most of us who have creative streaks can identify.
Heartland is an ideal kick-off locale for this wistful, hopeful indie film that should resonate deeply with creatives across the spectrum of accomplishment. Torrey has wisely infused the film with genuinely good music. It's the kind of music that would make you think "I wonder why I never hear that on the radio." Indeed, Gabe is a good-hearted soul with genuine talent and you can't help but wonder why he hasn't gotten his break.
Why? Because, well, sometimes breaks just don't happen.
Yet, sometimes they do. That sense of hopefulness quietly radiates underneath the surface of Long December.
Stephen Williams is ideally cast to capture both the melancholic spirit and hopeful determination of a musician who isn't so much hoping to become a household name as he is simply hoping to provide for his family using the gifts God's given him. He wants to show his infant son that anything is possible, though if we're being honest he really wants to show himself.
The film's music is sublime, especially flagship song "Heavy Hope." Both Williams and McMillan provided original tunes for the film and much of the film's music is performed live on camera. It shows. I can feel Long December's music in my bones whether it's the film's original folk, rock and blues music or soulful covers of classic and familiar Christmas carols.
Lensing by Christopher Calnin gives the film a heartfelt intimacy that works beautifully whether Gabe is performing dutifully to an unfeeling shopping mall audience or surrounded by a family that supports whether or not they entirely understand.
Films like A Star is Born and Once will most certainly come to mind, though most certainly Long December is its own special musical creation. In addition to a soulful and empathetic performance from Williams, Emily Althaus is an absolutely essential gem as Jamie and, of course, McMillan shines in a relatively brief yet meaningful turn as Gabe's more commercially successful cousin.
Every year, it seems like an indie filmmaker shows up at Heartland whose work I've been covering for years. This year, Thomas Torrey is one of those filmmakers and it's exciting to see his arrival marked by such a warm, winning, and immensely entertaining film as Long December. While Heartland may make its world premiere, Long December should be set for a long and successful festival run.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic