One Magic Christmas (1985)

There are plenty of movies to choose from if you want to watch one about a down-on-their-luck family that gets a little holiday help during Christmas. One of my favorite films that kind of falls into this subgenre is Where God Left His Shoes. The 2007 drama stars John Leguizamo as a father who tries to get his family out of a shelter and into their own home before Christmas. It treats homelessness with the seriousness it deserves and leaves you feeling both uplifted and uneasy. I also recently caught up The Christmas Star, an older movie that fits snugly into this category. Not as powerful as Leguizamo’s film, it nevertheless has touching moments that make it worthwhile.

So it was with some expectation that I thought One Magic Christmas would deliver. Unfortunately, it buries you in so much sorrow that its feel-good ending comes as a relief rather than as any celebration. Mary Steenburgen is masterful as overworked mom and wife Ginny Grainger, wearing her exhaustion like it’s the only thing she’s got. With an unemployed husband and bills coming due, she has to take a job at the grocery store. You can see her soul creeping away as she stands at the till, leaving her hollowed out by shift’s end. Then things go from bad to worse. It’s not just about finding a way to pay for gifts or arguing about whether Ginny’s husband, Jack (Basaraba), should start his own bike shop. A chain of events leads to a devastating Christmas, a place where all hope has been abandoned.

The thinking behind this movie seems to be that the more sadness and misery these characters experience, the more joyful and redemptive their Christmas will be. A somewhat forgotten angel, Gideon (Harry Dean Stanton), is witness to what transpires and has been sent by God, or the talking moon – it’s not clear which, to help Ginny. But help comes via the most circuitous, painful route imaginable, and I’m sure the movie would be just as moving had Ginny not felt like she’d entered the gates of Hell.

The story is a pile-up of tragedy, which doesn’t just make things sad, it also makes them slow. Steenburgen has a scene early in the film where she’s singing to the Supremes in the shower, and it’s a rare fun and carefree moment. The movie doesn’t allow enough of these though. Sarah Polley plays the sweet neighbor girl, and Ginny’s own kids add charm. Her daughter (Elisabeth Harnois) wants to send a letter to Santa, hoping that he can change things for the better. I even liked sad, hangdog Gideon who does bring perspective and a sense of calm despite talking like he’s the angel that all the other angels don’t invite to their parties. All I need from this supposedly family-friendly movie is a little more optimism.

Released: 1985
Prod: Peter O’Brian
Dir: Phillip Borsos
Writer: Phillip Borsos, Barry Healey, Thomas Meehan
Cast: Mary Steenburgen, Gary Basaraba, Harry Dean Stanton, Arthur Hill, Robbie Magwood, Elisabeth Harnois, Wayne Robson, Sarah Polley
Time: 89 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019