If you spend the holidays weary and depressed, wishing you could take a sucker-punch to the gut that might make you feel a little bit better about your own life, do I have the movie for you! Prancer is a staggeringly great film on its own merits, but it’s impossible to imagine happy families gathering together to watch it. It’s not really a film that exists to be enjoyed so much as endured, like a marathon of domestic abuse and mind-bending sadness.

In an impressively natural performance, Rebecca Harrell stars as Jessie Riggs, daughter of an Indiana apple farmer (Sam Elliott in one of his best performances) who struggles to put non-apple food on the table as much as he struggles with being a single father to an eight-year-old girl he doesn’t wholly understand. Jessie clings to her belief in the power of Christmas and Santa Claus — late in the film, father John grouses that she plays Christmas records year-round — despite all evidence to the contrary. In a poignant scene emblematic of the tone, richness of character and theme, and utter despair of this film, Jessie’s best friend, Carol (Ariana Richards), announces she no longer believes in Santa Claus, which Jessie counters by saying, “If Santa’s not real, then God’s not real.” When Carol suggests maybe that, too, is true, Jessie cries that if God’s not real, heaven’s not real, and if heaven’s not real — where did her mother go?

One night, Jessie tries to run away (a recurring theme with her). In the forest, she sees a reindeer and convinces herself it’s Prancer, one of Santa’s reindeer, who got lost. It disappears like a UFO, which confirms her suspicions of its magical powers. In the distance, she hears a rifle shot, but before she can investigate, John appears, chewing her out for “taking a walk” (he’s as delusional as she is) at night, when hunters have secret off-season deer stands set up all over the woods. While driving her back home, John announces his only choice is to shuffle her off to her Aunt Sarah, who can provide all the things he can’t. Despite her contentious relationship with John, Jessie sees this as a fate worse than death. Before she can argue, the reindeer appears in the middle of the snow-covered road, wounded from the shot heard earlier. John pulls out his own rifle, prepared to put the reindeer out of its misery, and as Jessie violently protests, the reindeer disappears again. John’s as stunned as Jessie, but he has to believe in a logical explanation.

Soon enough, Jessie finds the reindeer grazing in the barn. She hides it in an abandoned farmhand cabin, feeds it Christmas cookies and hay, and attempts to nurse it back to health. She enlists the aid of the local vet (Abe Vigoda) and does chores for the local scary lady (Cloris Leachman, who lives in an enormous, filthy house) in order to pay for oats. Before long, Jessie makes the mistake of asking a mall Santa (Michael Constantine) to pass a message along to the real Santa — she has Prancer, and he’ll be ready to fly on Christmas Eve, so he needs to meet her at Antler Ridge. The mall Santa immediately takes the story to the local paper, which leads to innocuous family pilgrimages to the Riggs farm. Once John realizes what Jessie has done, he sells the reindeer to the local Christmas tree salesman and shores up plans to send her to Aunt Sarah.

Even as the third act attempts to warm the hearts of viewers, Prancer never loses its grim sense of realism. The film never makes it entirely clear if Prancer flew or merely dove off the cliff at Antler Ridge (in actuality, Illinois’s own Starved Rock) to a grisly death, but that’s not what the film is about. Without ever overstating it, the film has less to do with the magic of Christmas than the power of faith — in Santa and Prancer, in God and heaven, and in the idea that Jessie’s life might improve as she learns to deal with the horrendous loss of her mother and life in a family where she’s not really unloved but also not really cared for.

Prancer is a wonderful film, but it’s not for anyone who wants to spend Christmas happy. “Less miserable” is the best it can do for the already-miserable, and it’ll just bring happy folks down. Nevertheless, if you want to feel an authentic emotional experience and a renewed sense of faith, you won’t do any better than this film. Even the venerable masterpiece It’s a Wonderful Life — itself incredibly downbeat until its last few minutes — doesn’t plunder such dark depths or explore weighty themes with such subtlety and grace.

D. B. Bates is a freelance script reader and writer.

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