We can go ahead and call time on Hallmark’s 2016 Christmas blitz because A Nutcracker Christmas just wiped the competition. Who knew that the channel best known for schmaltzy cookie cutter romances could dip into the arts to make something with touches of beauty and inspiration? In stepping outside its very cramped comfort zone, they finally found a story with real passion instead of just the pretense of it. Granted it’s all relative; the movie avoids some of Hallmark’s conventions but willingly embraces those of other genres. It most notably follows in the steps of dance movies like Center Stage, in which Sascha Radetsky also features, but that proves to be a good thing because while romance is a motivating factor, it isn’t the only one.
Main character Lilly’s (Amy Acker) first love is ballet, and all she’s ever wanted was to dance with an elite company. Her road to becoming a professional is a rough one though and starts in her hometown in Georgia. When she finally makes it into the renowned New York City Ballet, she gets a chance to dance her dream role, the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker. But tragedy strikes, as it does, causing her step away from ballet forever. Or at least until her teenage niece, Sadie (Sophia Lucia), wins the role of Clara in the Philadelphia Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker eight years later. She accompanies Sadie to the city, but it’s an uncomfortable re-entry into the life she left behind, made more so when she discovers that her ex-boyfriend and former dance partner, Mark (Radetsky), is directing the show.
Some subplots are thrown in to make things difficult for the three, including control freak dance moms and diva ballerinas, but Lilly’s real battle is with herself. As in many a Hallmark movie, she must confront her past if she wants to stop being an unhappy and unfulfilled person. But unlike many Hallmark movies, romance is not the endgame. Nor does inspiration come from homemade cookies or Santa hats or Christmas displays. What Lilly really needs to find is the best version of herself, which is not the one where she’s a yoga teacher in Georgia. In rediscovering the thing that makes her feel most alive, she changes and so do the people around her. Now that’s a way to deliver a heartwarming Christmas message.
It also helps to add dancing, and after so many Hallmark offerings that are visually, and often emotionally, static, we deserve something with artistic flair. There’s a much greater sense of space here, unlike the usual bland and penned in sets that just show cozy homes and snow-trimmed tree lots. Even if the shots aren’t cinematic in scope, they extend the boundaries of your TV screen. There is, dare I say, an elegance to the dance sequences, both in the way they are filmed and the way they quietly let us inside the characters.
One of my favorite scenes is when Lilly peeks into a rehearsal room and spies two dancers absorbed in each other and oblivious to their audience, and she momentarily imagines the life she might have led. Professional dancer Radetsky’s appearance in this movie is a treat too, and there’s another great moment when Mark is dancing by himself. It’s not polished or overly choreographed, and it’s not all that relevant to the narrative. But these are the scenes that give the movie character and allow the story to breathe. By the time we ease into the finale, which features exquisite performances from all three leads and some beautiful production design, it all feels effortless and meant to be. It makes you wonder why Hallmark doesn’t invest more resources into a few marquee pieces each year instead of churning out a dozen subpar holiday movies. I mean, do that many Canadian actors need jobs?
Dir: Nicole Avril
Writer: Helen Frost, David MacLeod
Cast: Amy Acker, Sascha Radetsky, Sophia Lucia, Kenneth Walsh, Katherine Barrell, Shauna MacDonald, Tina Pereira
Time: 83 min
Country: United States