We've come to expect the pious, the warm and the sentimental from the recent run of films aimed at the Christian moviegoer. But that typically has made for pretty bland cinema.
"Noelle," a new film opening in Philadelphia today, is the first movie in this genre to add wit to the recipe. It's clever, well-acted and almost-but-not-quite edgy.
This holiday film is set in a dying Catholic parish on Cape Cod and asks hard questions about abstinence, abortion, misuse of church funds and alcohol abuse. It has Catholic priests behaving badly.
No, not that badly.
And it dares to be funny.
Writer-director-star David Wall has dusted off that old "true meaning of the Christmas story" chestnut and pasted it on a holiday story of a crisis of faith within a Catholic Church "hitman" who shows up in fading parishes and gives the local and the parishioners the bad news: They're shutting you down.
This time, Father Keene has shown up at a Cape Cod church run by his old seminary pal, Father Simeon Joyce (Sean Patrick Brennan). The congregation is dying out or simply drifting away, and Simeon is hitting the bottle.
The priests argue, and in a moment of charity, Father Keene suggests they jazz up the Christmas creche. Make the Nativity scene on the front lawn a live-action one this year.
"Noelle's" amusing bits come from the casting sessions, gags about old guys who play the Wise Men not being able to kneel.
They've had knee replacements.
Wall makes these scenes play fast and funny.
And the film's heart comes from the efforts to talk local librarian Marjorie (Kerry Brennan) into playing the Virgin Mary. "I don't believe in virgin birth," she says. The shock here is Father Keene's willingness to agree with her on this and many other things.
Keene's crisis of conscience comes from Marjorie's unhappy romance with a local rich jerk and his own iffy desire to do the job this church has him doing. The priesthood's hold on him is shaky, and not helped by this vision of an angelic child out in the snow. It's driving him to drink.
"Noelle's" story unfolds in a timeworn way. But Wall, who seriously plays up his resemblance to a young Robert Redford, has filmed a visually striking and brisk holiday film, one that manages to be sweet and yet light on the sugar at the same time.