I don’t normally like family films, geared toward young viewers. Often you find that these kinds of films are condescending, moralizing and simplistic. Sometimes, though, there are screenwriters who understand that you can entertain children without resorting to potty humor, but also maintaining a level of sharp humor. In the British family movie Nativity! writer/director Debbie Isitt puts together an enjoyable, if slight, film that doesn’t talk down to its audience. The film also benefits greatly with two utterly charming performances by Ricky Gervais alumni, Martin Freeman (The Office) and Ashley Jensen (Extras).
Freeman plays Paul Maddens, an elementary school teacher who used to be a struggling actor. Instead of toiling away in obscurity, he decides to become a teacher instead. Fast forward five years later, and he’s tasked by his boss, Mrs Bevans (Pam Ferris) to produce the children’s Christmas pageant. Paul is unhappy with this job because he produced a Christmas show five years ago that was panned by a local critic (Alan Carr), while Paul’s rival from his acting days, Gordon Shakespeare (Jason Watkins), who teaches at a rival school, mounted a supremely successful production that got raves. Mrs Bevans also gives Paul a teacher’s aide, Mr Poppy (Marc Wootton), an enthusiastic man-child who is far more adept at earning the kids’ affection than he is at assisting a teacher. His idea of having the kids “prepare” for the Nativity, is to visit the maternity ward of a hospital to watch babies being born, and sneaking into a farm to kidnap goats, sheep and pigs for the manger.
The pageant’s progress is thrown into a loop when in a fit of competitive pique, Paul lies to Gordon, saying his Christmas pageant will be visited by a bigtime Hollywood producer, Jennifer Lore (Jensen), who was Paul’s partner before breaking up with him to move to California. Mr Poppy overhears this, and because he’s naive to an extreme, believes it to be the truth and announces it to the school. And quickly, the lie grows to ridiculous proportions, and Paul is swept up in it, terrified to disappoint the children and lose his job. This is difficult for Paul because he’s still pining for Jennifer, and he doesn’t believe that the play will be successful, despite the enthusiasm of his students, Mr Poppy and Mrs Bevans.
Needless to say, Nativity! isn’t a novel film. Isitt isn’t necessarily reinventing a genre with the film, but it’s very amiable and entertaining. Normally, I run (or flee) when I see a movie with lots of kids. But thankfully, in Nativity! the kids aren’t sloppy cute – don’t get me wrong, they’re adorable, and Isitt doesn’t stray from sentiment, but there’s just enough sharp, peppery wit and comedy with these children, that they’re fun to watch. A great scene has a group of kids perform an avant garde production of the Nativity – only it’s focused on Herod. And it’s a spoof on the classic Peter Brooks productions of William Shakespeare, with the little girls dressed in mourning clothes, doing interpretive dance, and gnashing their teeth in mock grief – and best of all, when enacting the massacre of the first born boys, the kids pull apart a baby doll that comes apart into red ribbons that signify gushing blood – all this is done to the horror of the audience full of parents.
The musical numbers for the show are wonderfully performed, and the kids are talented – but not prodigiously talented, so it’s reasonable and believable to watch these gifted kids sing and dance. We’re not watching Shirley Temples or Judy Garlands. Instead, we’re watching normal kids perform well after hard work.
And best of all is Freeman who is a genial and funny anchor for the film. He’s paired with Wootton and they make a funny comic duo. Wootton is a bundle of comic energy, literally jumping into an enthusiastic performance that will remind viewers of Chris Pratt’s Andy Dwyer from Parks and Recreation. Freeman is the straight man, but he’s a brilliant actor – no one can react in a scene like Freeman – his deadpan slow burns are hilarious. Jensen’s equally good, but her role is pretty colorless – she’s mostly scene in flashbacks – and though she’s excellent, it’s a bit of a wonder why a comedienne of her gifts was cast in such a thankless role. As the villain of the film, Watkins easily steals his scenes as the weasily Gordon Shakespeare.
Watching the film, I was also struck at how it avoided easy, facile homophobia. When the children are trucked to their rival school to see their competition, instead of scoffing the boys wearing leotards and performing ballet and modern dance, they marvel at the talent and agree that the boys are good dancers. Also, one of the kids has two dads, and it’s treated casually. And when the boys have to dress in drag for the show, it’s done without any cheap, dismissive humor.
Now, there will be some churls who will complain that the movie is predictable and trite. And these charges aren’t exactly unjustified. Despite the conflict, the viewers know the kids will pull off an amazing show. And really, the film’s so light and fluffly, it almost floats in the air. And I’m still not sure if Isbitt had a handle on Mrs Bevans – at times the woman seems to be preoccupied with fame and self-interest and is completely ridiculous, and at other times, she emerges as a task master. But folks who dismiss Nativity! are just mean grumps – it’s a fun movie that should be repeat watching not only during the holiday season but anytime throughout the year.