Austin Family Critical Rating: 4 of 5
Austin Family Family-Friendly Rating: 5 of 5
“Dear Santa,” a new documentary by Dana Nachman, is a warm and endearing film about Operation Santa, a program run by the United States Post Office in which letters to Santa from young children are “adopted” by volunteers and good Samaritans around the country. These “Adopter Elves,” as they are credited throughout the film, read through letters and pick a handful of children’s wishes to fulfill come Christmastime.
“Dear Santa” follows a number of characters in cities across the United States. There are those who run nonprofits to help fulfill these Christmas wishes – including Damion, who had his own letter answered as a child through Operation Santa and now wishes to pay it forward to today’s children through his organizing.
There’s also an emphasis placed on families whose lives have been upended due to natural disasters, particularly the wildfires in California and Hurricane Sandy in New York. Victoria, who is based out of Chico, lost her home in Paradise, CA, in the 2018 wildfires. Her wish is to live in her home again.
In a particularly moving segment, we meet Jamie, the Lead Elf in Chico. She receives Victoria’s letter and is moved to tears. We quickly learn there’s a personal connection here – Jamie also lost her home in the wildfires. An adult who loves toys as much as any child, Jamie left her entire toy collection behind when she fled from the fires. She lost everything – and now keeps her first toy since the fire, a monkey doll, close to her at all times. Jamie says it’s her duty to help others who had to abandon their homes in Paradise.
This drive to help others is brought home even further by Operation Pay it Forward at P.S. 253 in Brighton Beach, New York. After living through the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy, this student government class now reviews children’s letters to help others as they were helped in the aftermath of the hurricane. The requests from the children, by the way, are wonderfully varied – a limousine ride, a rabbit, a new home, race cars.
The film is cleverly designed to work for both children and adults. Parents will understand the tongue-in-cheek nature of the Adopter Elves’ communication with Santa shown through graphics of elves texting and chatting with Santa online, which keeps the film rooted enough in the Santa legend to not disrupt the imaginations of any children watching.
Among many other things, Dear Santa is a touching tribute to the US Post Office at a time when postal workers greatly need our love. I was shocked to learn that this operation has been in practice for 107 years. I had never heard of it, and I suspect many others haven’t, either. Dear Santa isn’t just intended to show the process behind this operation – it hopes to inspire even more folks to get involved. The film absolutely succeeds on that level.
“Dear Santa” is not rated, but it’s appropriate for all audiences – there is nothing objectionable in the film, and it’s an ideal movie to watch with the entire family. The movie opens in cinemas on Dec. 4. (showing at the IPIC Austin) and is available on demand through IFC Films.
Reviewed by Jack Kyser, a graduate of Austin High School and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.