Christmastime is a holiday so culturally significant that it stretches from December 25 into November, not just through mushrooming Christmas trees in shopping centres and office blocks, but in an extended period in which people everywhere are allowed to indulge in sentimental feelings for family, romance, and love. November–December is when I am most likely to pick up a (giant pile of) Mills and Boon, to reread my childhood books, to take my partner on a proper date, and to watch a romantic movie. As a romance editor I would like to nudge society and say hey, you know what, heightened emotions and sincerity and passion are okay all year round, here have a book! As a consumer I am very happy that Netflix is on board with the November/December upswing of joy and mush, and is providing us with a new set of delightfully silly/sincere Christmas movies.
The first of these is called THE HOLIDAY CALENDAR, possibly because an ‘Advent Calendar’ is not a common thing in the US? I am curious about this. Anyway, the magical advent calendar is a neat touch, since advent calendars, as all children know, are a cheat way to make Christmas celebrations/chocolates start early, from 1 December instead of Christmas Day. It works for a movie put out at the very start of November as a herald of Christmas to come.
THE HOLIDAY CALENDAR (directed by Bradley Walsh) is set in an impossibly Christmassy small town where talented artist Abby Sutton (Kat Graham) works as a photographer, taking cheesy portrait photos. Her best friend Josh (Quincy Brown), who is also a photographer, has been travelling the world and has a travel blog, bless, which Abby hasn’t read. He comes home unexpectedly for the holidays and even more unexpectedly tells her he’s here to stay. Abby has a wise and warm Gramps (Ron Cephas Jones), who puts events in motion by giving Abby her grandmother’s antique advent calendar, with a twinkle in his eye. The calendar opens to reveal one little wooden toy a day. To Abby’s growing wonder, the toys seem to be pointing her towards a Christmas romance.
THE HOLIDAY CALENDAR is delightful and the lead actors are charming, especially the extremely gorgeous and charismatic Kat Graham.
All the same, this is one of those movies that makes you realise how very hard it is to do this kind of thing well, and make acted scenes look like natural, if larger-than-life, moments. The film is pretty uneven, with quite a few awkward moments. But it has SO MUCH charm, and I was very willing to forgive the notes that didn’t quite hit.
This is a holiday love story and the girl gets the CUTE BEST FRIEND FROM THE START not the DROP-IN HANDSOME DOCTOR who steps into her life like Prince Charming, a trope reversal now so familiar that it is of course itself a trope.
This film has LOTS of my favourite romance tropes, and one of them is a hero who is comfortable fitting in to the heroine’s family home (Mr Knightley > Mr Darcy, don’t @ me). From the first moment Josh reappears in Abby’s life, he insists that he’s part of it. There’s a great moment where Josh interrupts Abby at work. Instead of pretending to be a client, as I kind of expected him to do, he straight-up says he’s only there as Abby’s friend. We’re waiting to see if her boss will turn out to be a villain who docks her pay or threatens her job, but instead he thrusts a box into Josh’s arms and tells him he’s taking it to the car. Treating him not just as Abby’s friend, but as family. Josh fits neatly into Abby’s family dynamic too, even more than she does, and I am HERE for a domestic, cookie-providing, best-friend hero.
Abby confesses to Josh that her real dream is to open an artists’ studio to support herself and other artists. She even has the studio space all picked out. Now I love that the space is kinda small but obviously central with big windows, and if it weren’t for the owner wanting a year’s rent in advance, (which I don’t question being legal because: America), it would actually be a pragmatic way for Abby to ‘follow her dream’. AND she wants to build up other people. Abby is great. Also, Josh is extremely cute and everyone in Abby’s family gives him and Abby pointed ‘when are you going to get together already looks’ whenever they are in a scene together.
Abby’s family is loving and does well on providing cookies and Christmas decorating parties, but loses points in being down on Abby’s photography and pressuring her to join the family law firm. Abby’s parents: although Abby’s impressive single-mum sister is very cool, your artistic child DOES NOT want to join her in the family law firm. Abby’s ally in the family in her Gramps, and he tells her that Abby’s grandma was on her side too. Abby’s grandma hasn’t been gone that long, and there’s a subtle touch of genuine grief underneath the humour in Ron Cephas Jones’ performance, which outclasses most of the rest of the cast. The gift of the advent calendar is a gesture of his faith in Abby—in her art, but also in her potential for love. And this is another romance trope: that Abby’s artistic/career fulfilment and her romantic fulfilment are entwined. The point of the calendar’s magic is a bit confusing, but it makes sense through the logic of a romance narrative (especially an American one). Abby’s passion for art/success in her field/passion for her soulmate/success in a relationship are all completely enmeshed.
I am so in love with Abby’s apartment. WHY do I not have leafless saplings hung with fairy lights as room dividers? I have seen people criticise the film for her apartment being too nice and I guess I don’t have much of a handle on income/rent ratios in American fictional small Christmastide towns but it makes TOTAL sense to me that her apartment is unexpectedly lovely, spacious and put-together, because that is the point of the grinding at the day job that everyone is so down at her for; it’s given her the independence to put a decent life together, a thing that people sacrifice creativity to do all the time.
I have to admit to being distracted by my QUESTIONS about the calendar prop itself, such as: if Abby takes some time to warm up to the idea that the calendar is magic, why is she not more curious about how it LIGHTS UP? Antique clockwork might explain the doors opening each day, but lights can only be batteries or magic. Where is your technical curiousity, talented photographer? Also, was the prop department super squeezed for money and time? Why don’t the toys look more … well-crafted? I have $2-shop Christmas decorations from the 80s that look more like antique wooden toys and less like blobby playdough creations. Is their slight crappiness why Abby left them scattered on the coffee table and didn’t put them back in the cute little shelves in the cute little advent calendar house? I SO wanted to put them all back in their spots on the cute little shelves. We spend quite a bit of time on the first three toys, the boots and the Christmas tree and the candy cane. Just over a third of the way through I paused the movie to check how far along the bar we were and wondered how they were going to fit 25 toys and their relevance into the next two-thirds of the movie. ‘I bet there is a montage scene’ I thought, and I was *not* disappointed.
On the first day of Christmas, the advent calendar opens to reveal a tiny toy Christmas tree. That same day, Abby’s car runs over a Christmas tree and she meets handsome single dad doctor Ty-Good-To-Be-True (Ethan Peck) who takes her on a series of romantic Christmas-themed dates.
Abby has great chemistry with both potential love interests, although I found myself wondering whether Doctor Ty was only carrying it off with his deep voice, tallness, and ability to gaze intently at the heroine. That gaze that almost lingered too long in some shots, and it is hard to tell if some of the too-long gaze was bad direction, or a clever way to suggest that this guy is slightly off. There was a great moment when they’re arguing about the calendar, when Ty-Good-To-Be-True suddenly morphed a highly plausible rom-com lead to resembling, one of my besties’ worst uni boyfriend choices, the chiselled jaw suddenly belonging to a weaselly mansplaining know-it-all. This was either some great acting or … personal baggage? Both of which are fun to bring to a rom-com watch.
Ty is set up as a classic romance lead in almost too many ways—meet-cute in the street, meet-cute at the doctor’s office, meet-cute at the school play, romantic Christmas date #1, #2, #3 (#MONTAGE)—all with the blessing of the magical calendar. But is this all too magical? Is it all too good to be true? Ah, I see what you did there, film.
My favourite unexpected moment in the film is Abby calmly saying that the dates with Ty haven’t led to a real connection so she’s not sure about the relationship. Romance relies so much on romance heroines not knowing their own minds and hearts until the last second, so I did not expect this. It was so great though! An emotionally mature and articulate romance heroine (with a fabulous apartment) is someone to appreciate.
The conflict between Abby and Josh is, of course, what really breaks her down, and again we get a nice touch of realism: Josh’s mistake has genuine consequences for Abby’s career. And if Abby is using that as the excuse to pull away from being vulnerable in a real relationship with someone she knows well hey look ANOTHER romance trope I am here for. The more I write about the film the more I notice a core of emotional maturity: the tensions between work and family and self and romance are all more realistic and thought-out that a lot of slicker movies. (This doesn’t surprise me: romances are very good at showing the emotional stakes of the real world.) At the same time it has MAGIC and WACKY FUN that is awkward and cute by turns. I will gloss over the disappearing/reappearing calendar facilitating the final meeting because it is probably the film’s wobbliest point, and be satisfied with the declaration in the adorably ‘being renovated with ladders and drop cloths’ studio-to-be. It’s not the most passionate final scene ever, but the vulnerability and joy that Kat Graham manages to put into the moment is lovely to watch.
It’s worth taking the time for this cute, and satisfying film.
High point: When Dr Ty-Good-To-Be-True admits he can’t keep up with Abby’s witty repartee. HAH.
Low point: the slow motion montage of Abby remembering all of her moments with Josh. The placement of this was confusing as I was sure we’d already had the realisation that she loved him? The execution of the slow-mo was not good and it leeched the sparky chemistry out of all the moments. Thumbs down. The leads managed to make up for it when the film let them get back together onscreen though. Aww.