From the director of Batkid Begins (2015) and Pick of the Litter (2018) comes a joyous and heartfelt exploration of Operation Santa, an initiative within the U.S. Postal Service that works to answer letters of children and adults sent to Santa throughout the U.S. When the need to process letters became too much for the team, they expanded to include volunteers, dubbed “elves,” who would take responsibility for the letters, electively selecting recipients for whom they will track down the variety of wishes each sender desires. Director Dana Nachman juggles the insights of children, the feeling of the season, and the aspirations of people seeking to do good works in several locations across the country in the three weeks of activity ahead of Christmas. It’s a lot to handle in under 90 minutes, but Nachman does it all without ever spoiling the holiday’s biggest secret.
Nachman’s Dear Santa does more than the standard documentary. It doesn’t just explore and explain Operation Santa, an initiative in operation for over 113 years, but learns about the people who make it happen. For many, the holidays are just about our intimate circles, but Operation Santa is about something larger. It makes tangible the notion of “good will toward men” that occupies that time of year. Nachman does this by drawing the audience in with partial talking head interviews with a variety of children, children with their own ideas of who Santa is, of how the magic works, of who appears in the malls, and of what they would do if they capture the Man in Red. These interviews are absolutely delightful, filling the doc with a certain innocence and enchantment.
Once the audience is pulled in, Nachman switches to introducing the various “elves” helping Santa fulfill his annual duties. These are people like the postmaster in Pearce, Arizona, a mailperson in Chico, California, non-profit organizers in the New York area, or even children at an unnamed public school. The layers, if you will, in Dear Santa, come in the stories of both the ones writing letters and the ones seeking to fulfill them. So often the focus of such stories is on the gift and what it means to the recipient, something which should not be discounted at all, but Nachman allows the stories of the “elves” to shine as well, making the act of giving all the more wonderful. It’s the mailperson in Chico, Janine, who lost her home in the Paradise Fire of 2018 (the subject of the Ron Howard documentary Rebuilding Paradise) and is given the chance to delivery packages to families similarly displaced. It’s Damion, a man who gathers as many toys as he can manage for as many letters as he can because he was once gifted a combination radio-alarm clock that helped remove the burden of waking him from his sole parent. The act of giving itself comes from a deep place of pain and protection equally familiar to those who submit their letters full of wishes. From those desiring something as simple as a pet rabbit due to their love of the animal to those desiring a limo ride so that their family can see New York to those desiring a couch for a family in need, or those desiring all the accoutrements an unexpectedly expectant young mother needs. The wrapping of Dear Santa is the aura of love and joy many connect with Christmas, the gift itself is the way the stories connect us all.
The magic of the holiday, Nachman seems to posit, is all about a series of random strangers taking it upon themselves to see that the magic lives for everyone a bit like the audience clapping for Tinkerbell in the stage play version of Peter Pan. Are the holidays magical? They are if you make them magical through small acts of kindness for others.
In select theaters and on VOD December 4th, 2020.
Head to the official Dear Santa website for more information on the film.
To sign-up as an Elf, head to the Operation Santa website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.