The Mistletoe Secret goes a solid two-for-three in its lead casting. Tyler Hynes and Christopher Russell are the film’s best pairing, playing college friends and business partners who find themselves in a small town for the holidays. Kellie Pickler, meanwhile, has a hard time connecting with either. She may be a natural fit for something like Christmas in Graceland, but she’s all ways out of step as the Christmas-loving owner of a diner in Utah. Her performance can be too much of a distraction, and with a different actor in her role, this movie might have become one of Hallmark’s best efforts in 2019.
I still like the film and found Pickler’s part easy to ignore, but that’s not difficult when you consider the combined charm of Hynes and Russell. Also, it turns out Hynes’s Henley has its own gravitational pull. Science, folks. The two play Alex and Sterling, respectively, friends who work together on a travel show and website. Sterling Masters is the pretty face in front of the camera, hosting the popular Masters of Travel, while Alex pens articles for their website under his friend’s name. I don’t know how this is a good arrangement for Alex, but I hope that he’s getting a fair cut since he seems to be the brains behind this operation.
Nevertheless, dim and dopey Sterling has his appeal, and Russell is clearly having a fun in this role. He slips into the part with ease and fills his character with just enough ego and buffoonery to make Sterling a joke without being a jerk. The story centers around his decision to highlight tiny Midway, Utah for this year’s Christmas special, passing over cities like Tokyo and Austin, Texas because this plan syncs with his travel schedule and not because Midway is a worthy tourist destination.
However, the citizens of the tiny town don’t know that they’ll feature on Sterling’s website, and they won’t know if they’re the chosen ones until he publishes the first of three Christmas articles about their home. Many businesses could use the publicity boost, including Aria’s (Pickler) diner, which she runs with her father, Mack (Patrick Duffy). She’s seen tourism decline over the years and wants nothing more than to bring the spotlight back to Midway and to meet her traveling man hero this Christmas.
But since Alex is the one writing the articles, he’s the one Aria needs to win over. He arrives from San Francisco into Midway under the guise of a mystery novelist in need of some mountain-air inspiration. The two clash right away because it’s a truth universally acknowledged that city boys and small town girls detest one another. As they poke around the Christmas tree lot and the hot cocoa booth together though, he starts to appreciate Midway’s comforts and his gracious host.
Alex’s transformation, and this is really a story about him, is believable and moving because Hynes is a fantastic actor. Whereas Russell embodies his character’s playful, optimistic side, Hynes bottles up Alex’s intelligence. Hidden behind his suit of armor, that is his formidable Henley, is someone reaching for an identity outside of his association with Sterling. Alex possesses a humility and self-awareness that his friend lacks, which allows him to see a life for himself in Midway with Aria.
Unfortunately, Pickler is operating on another wavelength. Aria doesn’t give in to the push and pull of a relationship, and she and Alex talk at each other more than they do with each other. Though Pickler loosens up in smaller interactions, she loses control over the more important moments, stiffening up and parroting lines with little emotion. I can see why Alex and Sterling would admire her tenacity, but let’s be honest, the most dynamic relationship is the one between the two male leads. Hynes and Russell have more chemistry in a single glance than either have with Pickler, and theirs is the romance I’m really invested in. Give us that love story, Hallmark.
Dir: Terry Ingram
Writer: Rickie Castaneda, Megan Hocking
Cast: Kellie Pickler, Tyler Hynes, Christopher Russell, Patrick Duffy, Beverley Elliott, Kazumi Evans
Time: 90 min
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Channel