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Long December: Heartland IFF Film Review

Long December is charming enough but is ultimately another entry into a genre that has been done before and better. 

Movies about ‘making it’ in the music industry have had a fluctuating sense of appeal over the years. This is thanks to the variation of musical genres that then permit various renditions of the format. From 1937’s much lauded A Star Is Born, which has been consistently remade and reworked over the years, most recently as Bradley Cooper’s 2018 re-telling, to something less rooted in the Hollywood bourgeoisie like Curtis Hanson’s 8 Mile. What was a refreshing addition to the genre was John Carney’s Once, which took the tried and tested story of musical desire to the streets of Ireland. When it was released back in 2006, the plaudits and accolades came racing in. As with every critically acclaimed film, it was only a matter of time before someone attempted to recapture that magical once in a generation combination of something as wonderfully simple and heartfelt as Once. Thomas Torrey’s Long December is the latest to attempt as such. 

The protagonist attempting to make it in Long December is bearded crooner Gabe Lovell (Stephen Williams) whose rugged charm emanates across every guitar strum. In a more modern rendition of this story, Gabe had a youtube channel that once garnered him millions of views. The channel petered out as his stardom dream faded away. The film switches awkwardly between aspect ratios to show those youtube videos, as Gabe continues posting videos throughout the life he now has, to limited results.

In typically cliché fashion – a common occurrence in Long December, a film that is almost too indebted to the films it heralds as inspirations – Gabe chose a different life than he may have once had. One that revolves around his newly formed family, working shifts as a bartender where the patrons constantly jockey him to get behind the microphone, and busking in a mall for pennies instead of achieving the musical career that the quality of his music would normally offer. After performing at his cousin’s local gig, Gabe just so happens to get spotted by a talent scout, re-inspiring him to try and get his dream, finding a sense of emotional clarity along the way.

Torrey’s film is charming enough, but it is unassuming and all too slight to give anything beyond the simplistic pleasure of listening to the music that was recorded live on set by the cast. There is a distinct lack of tangible dramatics, where Gabe’s path to revisiting his dream is abandoned at the first hurdle, the child and the partner – with whom Williams has wonderful chemistry – who he is leaving behind are on board from the start and for all it’s purporting of achieving the American dream, it fails to capture any real truth in it.

loud and clear reviews Long December (Heartland International Film Festival 2023)
Long December (Heartland International Film Festival 2023)

The American dream is idealistic at best, and Torrey’s film places his characters in it without attempting any incisiveness. Where conflict could arise, with Gabe leaving the bar behind and stopping busking, the potential financial repercussions are non-existent in the film’s capitalistic society. This is particularly frustrating when the film is set during Christmas, a time of year that typically causes financial stress. At a brief 79 minutes, Torrey’s decision to have multiple set pieces where Gabe and the other musical artists perform, bloats an already too lean film.

That said, Williams – who is making his screen debut here – plays Gabe with an undeniable magnetism as the heart of the picture, capturing a tender slice of that American dream even if it is a shallow rendition. The heart-wrenching scene of Gabe serenading his baby to sleep is enchanting, and a montage sequence of YouTube views racing into the millions set to various clips and images of Gabe in oscillating levels of mustache is highly humourous. Set to his song ‘Mistaken Hands’, it’s a fun sequence that captures Gabe’s mindset to search for his dream again quite succinctly, even if the song itself is almost criminally derivative of Once’s ‘Falling Slowly’, following similar chord progression.

Long December is sweet, if shallow, and while Williams might not be the next big thing, he’s successful at doing what is required of him here. From the singing live to the necessity of Gabe’s charisma that got him millions of YouTube views, the film breathes because of him. For all that you wish it had more notes to it’s symphony, Long December is a breezy, pleasant tale, even if it’s a film done before. 

Long December had its World Premiere at the 2023 Heartland International Film Festival on October 6, 2023.

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