January 16, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

‘Dear Santa’ review: Letters lead to joy in USPS documentary

The Times is committed to reviewing theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials.

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more pegged-to-the-moment musical sentiment than Johnny Mathis singing “We need a little Christmas, right this very minute” over the opening credits of the documentary “Dear Santa,” but I dare you to resist its call. Writer-director Dana Nachman, inspired by a children’s picture book, unwraps the emotional saga that is Operation Santa, the United States Postal Service’s massive annual initiative to match some of the hundreds of thousands of letters addressed to the North Pole with individuals and organizations who help fulfill the wishes of the children (and sometimes adults) who write them.

Kids have been writing letters to Santa for generations and the recently besieged USPS has been providing this service for more than 100 years, expanding it over the decades to the point where the postal service now digitizes the Yuletide epistles. In large cities such as Chicago and New York and smaller towns in rural areas, postal workers and volunteer “elves” work diligently to help Saint Nick (who obviously can’t do everything himself).

Nachman interviews countless children for their thoughts on the subject of Santa and the types of gifts they’d like to receive, to charming effect, once again proving that the real thing is infinitely more entertaining than most fictional depictions. The requests vary from the usual toys and pets to those who simply want love or help for their struggling parents.

The heart-tugging does not end with the kids, as many of the adult “elves” — everyone who pitches in is referred to as an elf — have equally stirring backstories, including a Chico, Calif., postal worker who lost her home in the state’s wildfires and a Chicago man who was an Operation Santa kid himself and continues to pay it forward.

Sleekly packaged by UM Studios — the production arm of global media and advertising agency Universal McCann, a corporate descendent of Don Draper’s rivals in “Mad Men” — the film nevertheless maintains a homespun quality. Nachman (“Batkid Begins”) adroitly focuses on the human stories behind the program, structuring the narrative for maximum emotional impact without being cloying.

A spoiler-free zone when it comes to Santa’s secrets, “Dear Santa” doles out smiles and tears in equal measure as Nachman and her crew crisscrossed the country documenting the logistically challenging three-week sprint to spread holiday cheer in December 2019. That timing is both fortuitous and foreboding, as it presents a snapshot of life just prior to the pandemic.

Children at a New York public school help their teacher wrap an Operation Santa gift in the documentary “Dear Santa.”

(IFC Films)

There’s a much appreciated sweetness and innocence to what we witness, a truly diverse group of Americans selflessly helping one another, joy being their only compensation. But was this really just 12 months ago? Is this the same country where people refuse to wear masks and do the bare minimum to help others during a months-long crisis in which so many have died? It’s also hard not to wonder how much more difficult the task will be this year with COVID-19 restrictions and many more families in serious need.

Opening Friday and timed to the first day that elves can “adopt” letters (sign up at USPSOperationSanta.com), “Dear Santa” is an unapologetic invitation to join in. Anyone can adopt a letter, and it should be noted that the biggest grins and most heartfelt sobs in the film are from those who do.

‘Dear Santa’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes

Playing: Starts Dec. 4, Vineland Drive-in, City of Industry, and in limited release where theaters are open; also available on PVOD