This probably isn’t the Christmas movie you’re looking for, but it’s better than almost any you’ll see. Suitable for all seasons but particularly apt for the holidays, Where God Left His Shoes shakes you from the idyllic glow of trees by the fireplace and colored lights around the windows, if that’s the life you’re living. Instead, it takes you into the cold, wet streets of New York City and follows a homeless man as he searches for a job in order to secure an apartment for his family by Christmas Day.
It’s a story ripe for preaching and sentimentality but writer and director Salvatore Stabile doesn’t exploit his material. Instead, he falls back on brilliant performances, most notably from John Leguizamo and David Castro. Leguizamo stars as Frank Diaz, a boxer who loses a match, gets dropped from an upcoming card, and ends up evicted all in short order. He moves into a homeless shelter with his wife Angela (Leonor Varela), their daughter Christina (Samantha Rose), and his stepson Justin (Castro). After several months and no prospects of a steady job, the stress begins to wear even more heavily on him.
The family receives good news on Christmas Eve when they learn that they’ve been allocated an apartment. Frank takes his son to get things in order only to discover that they don’t qualify because he lacks a stable income. After some pleading, he gets a small reprieve and has until the end of the day to find a job. Most of the movie shows Frank and Justin as they frantically search for something, anything, that will allow them to leave the shelter and move into their own home. Things become increasingly desperate as favorable prospects turn into familiar rejections.
The movie could easily turn into a social commentary on a system that in trying to help those on the margins gets endlessly tangled in its own bureaucracy. But the focus falls on a more personal story, as if the problems plaguing institutions don’t merit the attention that human emotions do. Frank is a veteran of the first Gulf War, a convicted felon, and likely a dropout as Justin does most of his reading and writing. More importantly though, he’s a decent man who strives to live with dignity in a society that doesn’t give him many opportunities to do that.
Leguizamo delivers a brutal performance, one that aches in its restraint. He captures Frank’s despair not just at his inability to find a job but also his perceived failure to protect his family, to shield his children, and generally to live up to his own expectations. Yet while he burns with frustration at the many obstacles he encounters, those feelings are tempered with tremendous love. Many of Leguizamo’s most moving scenes are with Castro, who is superb in his role. He brings great depth to his character, a mouthy kid who gives as much as he takes but whose insolence belies a boy longing for the steady assurance of his parents’ love. Not to be dismissed is Varela’s performance as Frank’s wife. She has far fewer scenes but still shines as a woman whose struggles are no less than her husband’s.
Where God Left His Shoes certainly won’t leave you feeling cozy about the holidays and is an all too realistic portrait of Christmas as it really is. But it’s a gift of a movie, one that earns its emotional response. The film disturbs and frustrates but it also brings a measure of hope, showing more Christmas spirit in its final moments than reels of overly manufactured saccharine hits.
Prod: Michael Caldwell, Daniel Edelman, Richard Hutton, Salvatore Stabile
Dir: Salvatore Stabile
Writer: Salvatore Stabile
Cast: John Leguizamo, Leonor Varela, David Castro, Samantha Rose, Jerry Ferrara, Cheryl Freeman, Charles Dumas, Adriane Lenox
Time: 99 min
Country: United States