On the surface, 1983’s A Christmas Story underwhelms to discerning cinematic eyes. Based on the memoirs of Jean Shepherd, the film failed to attract much critical attention when first released. Maybe it was too saccharine or maybe due to its low budget, near TV movie appearance. There was very little narrative to offer on the surface – the central story revolved around Ralphie Parker’s quest for a Red Ryder BB gun.
That nostalgic simplicity, in my opinion, is the real key to the film’s exponential growth in esteem years later. That and thousands of repeat airings on various cable networks. A Christmas Story would never appear on any list of the greatest films of all time, but it is one of the most quotable and instantly recognizable films ever made. Despite featuring a cast completely devoid of diversity (and an embarrassingly racist finale), there are nuggets of truth in almost every scene.
The 1940s-ish setting is lovingly realized in a simplistic and uncomplicated fashion, and Ralph’s daily vignettes feel ripped from collective family stories. The tongue on the icy flag pole. The paralyzing fear of Santa Claus. The accidental utterance of a 4-letter word. The awkward gift from a crazy aunt. But most of all, it warms viewers with the sense that almost anything (in this case, World War II) can be momentarily set aside when the world is wrapped in red, blue, and green Christmas lights.
I can only imagine watching A Christmas Story this year – with all of our political and social unrest and division – that, if only for two hours, everything could be washed away with Jean Shepherd’s smooth voice-over narration. For all its faults, A Christmas Story’s predictability and unchallenging nature are a welcome respite at Christmas. In an ever-changing world, coming back to this film year after year at the holiday season is one of life’s most simple pleasures.