Kurt is a well-to-do but awkward English teacher living in Prague. A Christmas “orphan” without a place to go for the holiday — and stuck in an apartment with the power shut off and no running water anymore — he gets an invite to one of his middle-aged student’s home for Christmas dinner.
But Kurt doesn’t realize what strange situation he’s walked into. His student seems to have a drinking problem, and his marriage to his younger, attractive wife seems troubled. Throughout the evening, Kurt must figure out and then navigate a strange domestic situation — and this is before the titular Christmas fish is prepared and eaten for dinner.
Writer-director-lead actor Cole Stamm’s understated dramedy in many ways takes a series of classic storytelling tropes — a classic “fish-out-of-water” story about a “stranger in a strange land” — but infuses them with a wry, intelligent tone and perspective.
Its strengths as a film lay in its excellent writing, with a keen sense of character detail and an ear for the way that people dance around their truths and desires in conversation without every quite summoning the honesty to speak openly and fully. Stamm’s sense of comedy seems to exploit the gaps between what’s said and what’s meant, making for many humorously awkward situations that play out in a quietly dry way.
The visuals, too, are equally low-key yet perceptive, favoring a naturalistic, muted color palette and very subtle camera movements that emphasize the strange interactions that Kurt finds himself in. The longer shots that the editing favors capture the way the uniformly excellent cast respond and strategize around one another, creating a cat-and-mouse game that resolves on a poignant, resolutely human moment.
Many films use the holidays as a way to explore family bonds in a warm, big-hearted way. But “The Christmas Fish” resolutely avoids cheap emotion, though it’s still interested in how people form communities, bonds and connections with one another. Instead of warm-and-fuzzy stories of sentiment and emotion, connections are made through longing and loneliness. The ending gestures at a kind of fellowship of human suffering, through a gentle acceptance of our flaws and needs and a willingness to share company and bake bread as we mutually stumble through life.