Clem Marshwell (Clarke Peters) is celebrating his 30th year at the Startop Christmas tree lot – and sadly, also his last. He’s finding it physically challenging as he gets older, and it’s not the same since his beloved wife died, but the truth is, he still loves it and is loathe to give it up, but developers are swooping in to take over the lot, and the decision’s been made for him. For now, though, he’s practically a Chicago celebrity, longtime clients returning year after year, and Clem remembers them all. Julie (Autumn Reeser) and young son Matt (Anthony Bolognese) are chief among them. Longtime friends, Christmas is a special time for them to reconnect and it’s been an especially hard year for them as Julie’s father passed after a long illness, devastating Matt, and leaving Julie with an illegitimate medical debt she can’t get rid of.
Enter Nick (Jesse Metcalfe), who’s just been fired from his job in finance, in which an alarming amount of his identity was wrapped up. Clem randomly notices him walking by the Christmas tree lot and offers him a job because he’s tall (not: taller than Clem, maybe, but tall? Sean is offended. And Metcalfe is 5’10) even though his blazer doesn’t scream manual labour and his Porsche probably isn’t fit to make tree deliveries. But not only is he “tall” he’s a great love interest for Julie, especially because of his attempts to bond with Matt, who’s been quiet ever since his grandpa died. They each have the ability to transform each other’s lives this tree selling season, at least until the obligatory (and in this case, even more meaningless than most) misunderstanding sets them back.
I seem to have enjoyed Christmas Under The Stars more than your typical Hallmark holiday film, and Peters and Reeser are the two biggest reasons why. It turns out, authentic acting does go a long way no matter how cheesy the material is. And either the material was slightly less cheesy (lactose free cheese?) or the acting was good enough that the cheese went down smooth (like après-ski fondu). Okay, I love cheese, so sue me.
And I rarely do this, but shout out to hair stylist Terry Hanson and makeup artist Charles Porlier who kept your girl Autumn looking flawless every damn minute, which can be difficult to do on a cold “Chicago” (Vancouver) set. Julie is a single mother and school teacher who’s biggest social engagement is her chronic addiction to a Christmas tree lot, not exactly glamourous, but while keeping her natural, she’s giving me major hair envy and Porlier knows the secret to a perfect berry lip (hmu!). I always admire a Hallmark costume designer (in this case, Jaralin Detienne) because they must comb stores year-round to amass those perfect holiday sweaters – the opposite of an ugly sweater, a Hallmark leading lady sweater should be soft, snug, cozy, feminine, conservative but with a memorable detail, like a ruffle at the sleeve, or a bow at the back, or some pearls scattered along the neckline. I kind of want to live in the Hallmark wardrobe department among all these perfect sweaters in their array of wintry colours (you’ll never see hot pink on the Hallmark channel) and all of their perfect red coats, with perfect cashmere accessories that always match, because part of the fantasy of Hallmark is that you never leave your mittens in a cab.
It’s easy to get stuck on the Hallmark formula, but the machine includes so much more than just the predictable story. It means casting girl-next-door leads (pretty, approachable, age 30 and up), finding an army of small towns that can be tarted up for Christmas, scouting inns and lodges (Bret Jolliffe) with authentic details like snow-capped dormer windows, or wood-carved benches by a skating pond, and set decorating (Sheldon Feyter) the hell out of every inch of available surface. It’s a fantasy that works because it’s recognizably real life, but elevated for that extra holiday heart. And with so many dedicated people working so hard to make this movie drip with the Christmas spirit, the least we can do is take a moment to appreciate it.