A Great Lamp explores a common feature of the quarter life crisis in stark black and white.
The film, which will be showing at the Mammoth Lakes Film Festival at the end of the month, braids the narratives of three derelicts desperately searching for family on the streets of Wilmington, North Carolina.
Through a Linklater-esque menagerie of endearing character cameos edited with art house jump cuts and integrated animation, A Great Lamp deals with the loss that each person faces when they reach maturity, when the first of those who have loved them for their entire lives, and whom they have loved, breaks away, and whether the voids they leave can ever be filled.
The soundtrack consists of atonal soundscapes peppered with renditions of recognizable classics. To prompt the film’s melding of reality with the supernatural, it begins with a minimalist animation of a fish transforming into a man, which then uncannily transforms into a stream’s reflection of a live-action protagonist.
Little is known of the three protagonists except that they have broken relationships with family members.
Max, a long-haired, skirt-clad outcast, posters the streets with the image of his year-dead grandmother, the only person in his life who loved him unconditionally, who is dying all over again as Max, “forgets what her voice sounded like.”
Howie, a sharp-dressed bipolar, has come from Arkansas to see a rocket launch over the city. As it becomes clear, however, Howie really came to Wilmington to help people. He listens to the wishes that people throw with their coins into fountains and, by granting them, offers them the maternal selflessness that he lost at the death of his mother.
Gene, a scruffy, anxious loner, walks the streets crushed by his life of banal deceit. He lives with his parents and out of fear of his father, and at the advice of his mother, he has not told his father that he quit his job. Each weekday for two months he absconds out to wander the city pretending for an audience of one that he is at work as an insurance agent. With the heaviness of his lie pressurizing his world, each pin prick disappointment, for instance, a broken coffee mug, brings him agony.
That this is a Christmas movie may pass unnoticed. It opens on Max singing The Little Drummer Boy as he paints the town with his grandmother’s face. The themes of this song permeate.
All the little drummer boy wanted when approaching the newborn Christ was to give a gift. The wisemen famously gave extravagant gifts, but the drummer boy was poor and had no gift to give.
So too do the protagonists of this film mistakenly believe that love, their salvations, can be won by gifts: a coffee mug, posters, wishes. They obsess over what these gifts might win them not realizing how insignificant their tokens might be.
Each of the three narrative climaxes come during revelations of great woe or understanding shot in intimate, sometimes discomforting close-up. These moments can be sentimental but never feel contrived.
One jaggedly affective revelation comes when Gene finds out that his deceived father plans to buy him a new television for Christmas because he is proud of him for doing his job. The pain of creating a lie that will inevitably disappoint a proud parent felt acutely relatable.
The lovable acting and wonderful cinematography make this film firmly enjoyable, and the pervading theme that one’s first tragic loss means the loss of part of one’s self will hit home for anyone who has lost a loved one, which is to say, just about everyone.