Hilarious and heartfelt, A Sunburnt Christmas is a uniquely Australian delight

Who’s in the mood for a Christmas movie miracle? Stan‘s feel-good festive flick A Sunburnt Christmas is joyously entertaining, says critic Travis Johnson.

Look, Daniel Henshall (Snowtown and now this—how’s that for range?) is an amiable criminal on the run who, while disguised as a volunteer Santa Claus, crashes his stolen panel van into a rundown farm where he finds a widow and three children in desperate need of a Christmas miracle. And that should be all the reason you need to see A Sunburnt Christmas, a weapons-grade delight of a film.

To me, the best Christmas stories are redemption stories, and the ur-example is Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol, which begat everything from Scrooged to Bad Santa. A Sunburnt Christmas operates very much in that mode, with Henshall’s Daryl the ratbag on the run, having lit out from a guarded hospital ward after being shanked in prison. He’s after half a million in stolen money that’s been hidden somewhere on the farm. So too is vicious but weirdly religious thug Dingo (Sullivan Stapleton, relishing playing the heavy), who also wants some terminal payback from Daryl.

Things get complicated when wide-eyed Daisy (Lena Nankivell, absolutely adorable MVP) and perpetually anxious Tom (Eaden McGuinness) become convinced Daryl is the real Santa, despite his tattoos, ocker drawl and quasi-foul mouth (never fret, parents, this one is a soft PG). Little Daisy in particular has a surfeit of faith: she totes around a shotgun and takes potshots at the clouds to try and make the drought break, which is why she’s appalled at the thought that she may have accidentally shot down Santa’s sleigh.

Hard-nosed 15-year-old Hazel (Tatiana Goode) is a harder sell, with too much on her plate to be dealing with Daryl’s shenanigans. Since the death of their father a year ago, their mother (Ling Cooper Tang) has been running on fumes. Hazel is now the de facto head of the household, trying to keep her sibs fed and clothed while fending off foreclosure on the farm—something Daryl’s stolen loot could certainly help with.

So, being a savvy viewer, you can kind of see where this is going in the broad strokes, the moral messaging of the film writ large. But it ain’t what you do but the way that you do it. The script, by relative newcomers Elliott and Gretel Vella and Timothy Walker, offers up some engaging twists and emotional pay offs that elevate what is a fairly familiar basic narrative model.

Bondi Hipster Christiaan Van Vuuren, here making his feature directing debut, handles the comedy with practiced flair, but also proves adept at drama and pathos—of which there are plenty. A Sunburnt Christmas may be a feel good family Christmas flick, but it doesn’t shy away from the very real traumas and old scars almost every character is carrying. Daryl laments a king-hit killing in his youth that sent him on a life of crime, while mum’s depression and dad’s death are not treated lightly; nor is the effect both have on the kids.

This grounded approach puts A Sunburnt Christmas a cut above the usual holiday fare. It’s recognition of real pain makes its message of hope and redemption shine even brighter by contrast, a kind of hard-hearted sentimentality—if that’s not a complete contradiction in terms—that is incredibly difficult to nail but very rewarding when done right. A Sunburnt Christmas does it right, delivering a hilarious, heartfelt, genuinely beautiful and uniquely Australian holiday movie bound to be on yearly rotation for decades to come.