Reviews Short Narrative

Late for Christmas (2020) – 3.5 stars

Director: Blake Studwell

Writer: Blake Studwell & D.W. Medoff

Cast: Jonathon Pawlowski, Elizabeth Becka, Sarah Elizabeth Stephens, Frank Amoroso, Riley Madison Fuller, Chris Genovese

Running time: 6mins

Often, we all engage in a bit of so-bad-it’s-good viewing; especially around the holidays, when there is a seasonal glut to take our pick from. Through the power of television, consumer industries have been flooding our living rooms with tinsel-coated crap for the best part of a century now, instantly beaming content into our homes aimed at tugging on our heartstrings in a way that could compel us to rush out and buy something utterly disposable for someone supposedly irreplaceable. After all, how else could we show them we cared?

The thing is, while Hollywood has been extraordinarily good at pulling off this sleight of hand throughout its history, maybe they made it look too easy. It turns out that while this kind of marketing is actually easier said than done – and when other consumer industries have decided to try and cash in with their own Christmas content, their attempts have been utterly laughable.

Kings of the mis-judged Jedi mind-trick, limply dangling a clammy hand in front of your face and insisting “These are the products you are looking for,” Hallmark have become the gold-standard for festive misfires. Owned by the holding company of mawkish greetings card pedlar Hallmark Cards, Hallmark Channel features saccharine mini-series and made for tv features for every occasion – each somehow more bafflingly inhuman than the last.

Taking aim at this endless churn of overly sweet and ultimately creepy holiday entertainment, Late for Christmas is a five-minute pastiche of Hallmark films as a genre. To some this might seem like an easy target. Hallmark films are hilariously bad – and provide plentiful opportunities to crack wise at their creators’ expense. The problem is, if you have seen films like Sharknado, in contrast to things like Deep Blue Sea, you’ll be aware that ‘parody’ for the sake of parody can go horribly wrong.

Making a bad film on purpose can provide viewers with an utterly miserable product (as viewers of RuPaul’s The Bitch Who Stole Christmas are about to find out the hard way). Either it can be too specific; focusing on the minutiae of a film nobody saw (providing us with the equivalent of being trapped in the elevator with a pack of students as they roll out their last semester’s worth of obscure in-jokes); or too bland and broad (resulting in something less compelling, or indeed amusing, than the Real McCoy). Some films manage to strike the right balance – but the fact there are 1,000 Scary Movies for every Black Dynamite should serve as a warning to anyone considering such an undertaking.

With that being said, Late for Christmas does – at times – manage to get its balancing act right. The script from Blake Studwell and D.W. Medoff takes a little while to get going, but in the final third of the film it really manages to capture some of the delirious absurdity of Hallmark Christmas films.

Jonathon (Jonathon Pawlowski) has returned to the family home for Christmas, and he has come bearing gifts. Unfortunately for him, they are not gifts which his feckless ‘loved ones’ remotely appreciate. Not even bothering to disguise their contempt, they oafishly guffaw before even opening the packages – what disgusting trinket could our impoverished brother have bought us this year? – before dismissing some relatively reasonable presents. Sarah (Sarah Elizabeth Stephens) sneers that a care-package including moisturiser “must be for someone else,” because her skin moistens itself on its own, while Chris (Chris Genovese) turns his nose up at a $9 gift card.

The problem is, the story here does not seem aware of where it wants to draw its battle lines. On the one hand, we’re primed to root for Jonathon against his ungrateful relatives, but on the other hand, when he stands up to them for being so ungrateful, he reveals that he didn’t bother to get the youngest family member Riley (Riley Madison Fuller) anything at all. Not even something humorously shoddy. There might have been something humorous to play up in that absent-minded hypocrisy, if it weren’t magnified a million times by the rest of the family meanwhile, none of whom have offered him anything.

Perhaps this arbitrary and confusing mess of disappointment and jerkish behaviour is an accurate pastiche of a Hallmark film. Perhaps this is an accurate moment of disconnect you would find in one of that brand’s hackneyed films. The problem is that most of us haven’t seen many, if any, of those films – so to recreate them faithfully without installing some normative voice of reason, helping us compare our usual narrative expectations with this nightmare, leaves us utterly lost.

I do believe this confusion, for better or for worse, is what the writers were going for, and I suppose they achieved what they were setting out to do then. I don’t know how well a lot of that works as a stand-alone comedy for the uninitiated – but to be fair, there are a couple of standout moments where it does pay off.

In particular, one monologue from the family’s ageing mother (Elizabeth Becka) is delightfully unhinged. Attempting to explain why her children should value every moment they have together, and not give up on the magic of spending Christmas together, her Biden-esque, half-remembered ramble manages to actually give an excellent reason why they might want to give each other’s company a miss at this time of year – before everyone just decides they love each other again.

It’s a fantastic moment of contrast, and shows what might have been accomplished had the filmmakers given more space for areas of realism to encroach on the genre of storytelling they wanted to lampoon. After all, Christmas can be a truly horrific experience for some people in real life – so there would be more humour either in seeing how a Hallmark character would react to the harshness of the real world, or in placing a ‘normal’ person in the middle of an inane, consumerist fable of the Hallmark universe.

With all that being said, one of the film’s biggest positives seems to be that because it is so convincing as a confused and nonsensical Hallmark film, it has alarmed and frustrated a large number of Hallmark’s real target audience. A quick browse through the comments of the film’s YouTube listing shows that many viewers bluntly dismiss it as “missing the mark” without elaborating, or they believe it was a strange way of getting across a message of festive unity, while utterly misunderstanding the grim warning Mom might have been trying to get across while she gets all shaky over the pecan pie. The fact those people either seem to have been suckered in by the joke, or enraged by it, is a worthy Christmas present for any misanthrope, and I can only thank the filmmakers.

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