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Ebert's Greats #8: A Christmas Story (1983)

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Director: Bob Clark
Starring: Peter Billingsley, Darren McGavin, Melina Dillon

The only thing worse than your mother refusing to get you the toy you want most because you'll take your eye out is getting that toy and proving her right. Actually, no, there is something worse: pink bunny pajamas. Nothing beats that... although, getting your tongue stuck to a flagpole doesn't seem that pleasant, either. A Christmas Story, adapted from short stories by Jean Shepherd, recounts all manner of childhood traumas with humor and heart, making it a perfect holiday movie.

A Christmas Story follows the trials and tribulations of nine-year-old Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley) who wants more than anything to get a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. His appeals frequently fall on deaf ears, however, as most everyone agrees that were he to get a BB gun, he'd end up losing an eye. But a boy can still hope! Fortunately for Ralphie, any man who would warmly embrace a lamp shaped like a woman's leg clad in a fishnet stocking is also a man who would buy a kid a weapon, and Ralphie's father is just such a man.

But, before the film gets to that point, there are many smaller adventures for Ralphie to tackle. There's his epic battle with school bully Scut Farkus, which ends with in Ralphie being caught by his mother beating Farkus up and swearing repeatedly, leading to him getting his mouth washed out with soap. Plus, there's the minor plot of Ralphie's Secret Society decoder ring in which he learns an important lesson about getting ripped off, Ralphie's pal Flick getting his tongue stuck to a flagpole, and pretty much everything involving Ralphie's brother Randy (Ian Petrella).

A Christmas Story unfolds at a nice, easy pace that works with the narration by Jean Shepherd to give the film an intimate, conversational feel, as if it's being recounted by a relative over Christmas dinner. The tone is obviously very light but there are a lot of moments that verge on the dramatic and give the story emotional resonance. For example, after Ralphie beats up Farkus, his mother pulls out the wait-until-your-father-gets-home chestnut. Ralphie waits in terror for the rest of the day but once his father gets home, his mother diffuses the situation by casually telling him about the fight and then immediately changing the subject. There are lots of little moments like that, ones which capture an authentic sense a familial give and take.

That family sense is aided immeasurably by the fact that the film is so perfectly cast. Billingsley makes for a great protagonist, giving a performance that is engaging without being overly precocious. Darren McGavin is pitch perfect as the family patriarch, swearing from one end of the film to the other, and as Ralphie's mother Melinda Dillon provides the film with a great deal of warmth. A Christmas Story is pretty much a perfect Christmas movie so if you haven't seen it yet, I highly recommend trying to catch it in the next couple of days - no doubt it will be playing endlessly over the Christmas weekend.

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