When it came out in 2010, this film's original title was "Faith, Fraud & Minimum Wage"-- adapted by Josh MacDonald from his stage play "Halo". Released on DVD in 2011, its title was changed to "Hoax for the Holidays", presumably so it could be marketed as a Christmas film. In a way, it is one, as it does take place during that season. However, it's not at all like "It's A Wonderful Life", although it features a film-fan priest who proposes screening that particular movie to cheer up the economically-depressed town. Russ Hunt, who reviewed the original 2003 theatre production, noted that this is "a Christmas show that might actually struggle through the fog of saccharine around the holiday and actually generate a bit of clarity, about miracles, and death, and loneliness". And I agree with his assessment, since it gets at some pretty deep issues about faith, betrayal, and what friendship and community really mean. So if you don't mind your Christmas stories on the dark and bittersweet side, this could be for you.
The story is set in the fictional town of Nately, Nova Scotia. The main character is a smart, skeptical girl named Casey, who like so many rural teens is hoping to leave for the city someday. In a moment of frustration after unfair treatment by her employer at the local donut shop, Casey turns a small act of vandalism into a prank that gets out of hand.
The film charts the upheaval this causes in the town, when Casey's boss decides to take advantage of the burgeoning crowds who flock to see what they believe to be a miraculous image of Jesus (or possibly Willie Nelson). It shows us the devout believers without making them seem laughable. Mainstream religion is represented too, in the two townspeople who show the most moral conflict over the image: the idealistic young priest Father JJ, and the kindhearted but clumsy hockey player Jansen who's Casey's co-worker and love interest. Jansen in particular is a classic example of most Christians I know -- he goes to church more because of his family background than out of fanatical devotion, but even if he doesn't always articulate it, he does have a pretty strong sense of right and wrong. Unlike her manipulative glad-handing boss Bob, Jansen doesn't try to persuade her to rejoin the church: instead, he's the one who ultimately challenges Casey to show that she can be a truly good person without being religious. In the end, it's arguably the quiet decency of those like Jansen that may have more positive effects than even the most attractive visions.
What makes this story more than a holiday comedy are the all-too-grim circumstances in Casey's life that have trapped her in a dead-end job, desperately trying to pay the bills. Her father Donald is incapacitated by grief, after the accident that injured his other daughter Meg. Casey's dad is virtually living in the hospital room where the comatose Meg is lying, hoping for a miracle even though her doctors tell them that this is impossible. Casey broods too, re-screening videos of her sister in happier times, as Meg was planning her escape to a brighter future. The accident scene is wrenching even though we know what's coming. Other townsfolk seem oblivious to the family's struggles, despite the fact that Donald's Christmas-tree business is on the skids.
The two storylines intertwine when Casey realizes the effect that the Jesus hoax is having on her distracted father, who becomes increasingly convinced that Meg can and will be healed. Casey has been benefiting from being the girl who "discovered" the image -- she is finally able to pay the utilities thanks to monetary donations from the many pilgrims, and even her former detractors are being pleasant to her. But now she has to decide whether she'll take the easy way out and go along with all this, or tell the truth and risk alienating the entire town.
The ending is surprisingly powerful, considering everyone is standing in the parking lot of a donut shop. And I actually found myself going back to look at the New Testament, because -- probably with the writer's intent -- events turn almost Biblical. Whether or not the townsfolk forgive her is left up to us to decide.
Martha MacIsaac and Callum Keith Rennie, both well-respected actors in Canada, do a convincing job as the leads. They're ably backed up by Don Allison, Ricky Mabe, and especially Andrew Bush as Father JJ. Given the small budget, the excellent editing and camera work make the film seem a lot bigger.
By an odd coincidence my cousin in Nova Scotia phoned as I was about to screen this DVD. When I mentioned it to her, she asked me to check where it was filmed -- Halifax and Shubenacadie, according to the end credits. An opening scene refers to Shintoism (the Japanese state religion), and my cousin joked that until pretty recently, she was probably the only Japanese-Canadian in Cape Breton - where the actual 1998 incident at a Tim Horton's that inspired the play and the movie took place. (Maritimers may recognize Cape Breton's Heather Rankin, and Dave Marsh of Halifax, in cameo roles as the evangelical folksingers in the film.)