I would normally complain about a plot like the one in Christmas Made to Order, but since I just watched Staging Christmas, which is vaguely similar but exponentially worse, I have nothing but praise for this film. The story may be a bit daffy, but leads Alexa Penavega and Jonathan Bennett pull it off and prove that good acting can make all the difference.
Penavega plays Gretchen, a stager for a catalogue company with dreams of starting her own decorating business. While sprucing up an office lobby, she runs into Steven (Bennett), an architect who could do without the fake snow and the garland and really anything that distracts from his work. The two team up, however, when he learns that his family are inviting themselves over for the holidays. As someone who doesn’t own a string of lights much less a Christmas tree, Steven needs a festive makeover to welcome his parents and his sister’s family. Gretchen fixes up his house so that it looks lived in and Christmasy, but the one-off gig turns into an extended job when he also hires her to show his family around the city. She overcomes her initial hesitation and agrees when he promises to hook her up with staging opportunities at his company’s properties.
The idea that Steven would be so busy and clueless that he’d have to hire a Christmas ambassador is…bizarre. That Gretchen or his family members would go along is even more baffling, but maybe that’s me. If I visited my brother during the holidays and he outsourced his part to some stranger he met two days earlier, there would be screaming, a lot of it and probably by me. Thankfully no one descends into histrionics though there is some protestation. The family is already here and Gretchen seems nice, so everyone gives in, happily ignoring Steven whilst making mold cider and personalized Christmas stockings, that is until he also wants in on the action too.
Penavega delivers the film’s best and funniest moments. She has a great WTF face and channels everyone’s awkwardness when Gretchen has to mediate the family feud between Steven, his sister and brother-in-law, and his parents. She unexpectedly finds herself counseling Steven’s niece as well, who wants to be a singer instead of a doctor like her tiger dad. Penavega’s dig at her real-life husband, Carlos, whose photo is a stand-in for Gretchen’s ex, adds a nice touch. It’s her character’s gumption that I admire most though. The actor gives us someone who’s serious about her work but who can also roll with the punches.
Bennett takes a bit of a backseat, but his easy chemistry with his costar is a large reason why this movie works. It feels like the two have known each other for years and that they have a shorthand that translates to their characters. The best couples generate their own energy, and these two have a buzz that brightens up the story in all the right places.
Dir: Sam Irvin
Writer: Matt Marx, Anna White
Cast: Alexa Penavega, Jonathan Bennett, Jo Marie Payton, Jacob Young, Chelsea Gilson, Andrew Roach, Bailee Johnson
Time: 90 min
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Channel