Hallmark didn’t come to play with this movie. It was an unexpected tearjerker, for me at least, and I’ve never related more to something so dripping with sentimentality. My Dish info described this as “a mildly saccharine, high-concept Yuletide drama,” and it is right on all accounts. A story about a long-dead mother who comes back as an angel to help patch up her family during Christmas, it’s both mawkish and moving. I could feel myself being manipulated by the minute and yet also powerless to resist the narrative machinations. It might make a difference that this is my first Christmas at home in years and that my family’s been separated by oceans for over a decade and that every Christmas decoration reminds me of some warm childhood memory and that I would also like to see my long-dead dad. But then again, it might just be a satisfying movie.
The film relies on some tried and true characters and plotlines. A fractured family threatens to disintegrate completely when father Buddy (Ronny Cox) suffers a stroke. He’s been living with his eldest daughter, Sarah (Tracey Needham), an artist going nowhere fast, and it’s not clear that a major health crisis is going to bring them closer. Buddy’s younger daughter, Beth (Natasha Gregson Wagner), isn’t eager to travel halfway across the country either when her life is going swimmingly. A trip home would disrupt her work and mean a visit with the sister she’s never liked anyway.
These broken relationships form the basis of many holiday stories, some of which also get a supernatural assist. Matriarch Lorraine (Meredith Baxter) sees her family in disarray and gets permission from whoever’s in charge of these things to return in human form, but only until Christmas Day. She hopes that her reappearance will help them to overcome years of hurt and misunderstandings and recover the love they once felt for each other.
You can see how things could get schmaltzy in a hurry. Buddy insists on returning to the family home, which happens to be a gorgeous lakefront property surrounded by mountains, and memories both happy and painful come flooding back. Lorraine’s Christmas surprise only heightens these emotions. The movie balances things out though with some unexpected humor. Besides Sarah’s hysteric, and totally reasonable, reaction to seeing her mother again, Lorraine is sometimes nonchalant about the whole ordeal. She goes on baking pies for the family and decorating for the holidays and even gets a little petty about an old meatloaf recipe.
Baxter navigates the funny and the serious with ease, bringing a light touch to her character and the film. Lorraine is like many mothers; her love is gentle and generous, but it’s also sometimes misused or misplaced. I guess being an angel will force you to confront your failings, and her honesty gives the rest of the family permission to voice the pain and regret that they had kept bottled up all these years. A lot of us can tap into those feelings and to the characters’ imperfection. Needham and Gregson Wagner also give relatable performances. One is the sister for whom nothing seems to work out while the other coasts through life without a worry. Both, however, are selfish in her own way and also share a deep loneliness.
The movie allows all these complicated emotions to come to the fore without being overshadowed by a silly plot device. It’s honest about grief, which doesn’t necessarily fade or get easier with time and which can swallow us whole. Instead, the story acknowledges that losing the people we love hurts, even if those people hurt us, but there’s also a way to move forward.
Dir: Georg Stanford Brown
Writer: Duane Poole
Cast: Meredith Baxter, Ronny Cox, Natasha Gregson Wagner, Tracey Needham, John Pyper-Ferguson, Tess Harper
Time: 83 min
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries