Some years are far better than others for new Christmas content. I know this because I consume them in the same way that I do my mom’s raspberry thumbprint cookies: until I am so sick that I don’t want to see another one for 10 more months. So far, 2023 has been pretty bleak when it comes to the genre. Sure, there have been occasional flashes of merriment and good tidings here and there—like in Ludacris’ holiday film that’s also somehow a political thriller, or in the Fellow Travelers Christmas episode that’s far more naughty than it is nice. But for every decent entry into the Christmas canon, there’s a moldy fruitcake wrapped in a gaudy bow. The less we talk about the bizarro Best. Christmas. Ever! or It’s a Wonderful Knife, the better.
Thankfully, one movie has arrived to tip the scales, and it’s the one that no one could’ve expected: EXmas, starring Leighton Meester and her blunt bangs. If you’ve watched the trailer for this movie, which is now streaming on Amazon FreeVee, you know exactly why: It looks like a mawkish, sparsely plotted rom-com that would be another egregious misuse of Meester’s effervescent star power. But being the Gossip Girl devotee and Christmas connoisseur that I am, I was prepared to endure. To my delight, EXmas is one of the year’s most unexpected holiday surprises, a warm and highly amusing comedy that genuinely feels like a 90-minute glimpse into a big family holiday.
That recognizable sensation of domestic hearth makes it easy for viewers to see why Meester’s character, Ali, is so eager to spend the holidays with her ex-boyfriend Graham’s (Robbie Amell) family, despite the fact that Graham and Ali have been broken up for nearly a year. Their relationship lasted a solid half-decade, during which time Ali became a real part of Graham’s loving, dysfunctional brood. Without much family of her own—and with Graham unable to make it home for the holidays because of an unexpected work obligation—Ali accepts an invitation from Graham’s parents, Jeannie (Kathryn Greenwood) and Dennis (the always hilarious Michael Hitchcock), to enjoy Christmas with them. They all think it’s the perfect plan, one Graham never has to know about as long as everyone keeps their traps shut, at least until Graham makes the last-minute decision to fly home for a surprise.
This, of course, elicits equal confusion and mayhem. Imagine flying from Los Angeles to Minnesota to find that your parents have taken your ex in for the holidays, and that they’re sleeping in your room and you’re on the couch. It’s a smart enough conceit, but most original Christmas movies would stop there, plugging in trope after trope and draping the sets in half-price garland from Joann Fabrics. EXmas cleverly uses its just-believable-enough plot to lean into the familiar dynamic of Graham’s family, who all infuse the movie with enough character to break the mold.
Graham’s prying sister Mindy (Veronica Slowikowska) is always around to give her older brother some much-needed ribbing while stirring up trouble. Meanwhile, their brother Elliott (Steven Huy) is the deadpan smart aleck, happy to add a snarky comment here or there to grab some attention. Jeannie and Dennis are a hoot and a half—an almost scarily convincing mom-and-dad duo reminiscent of so many parents I know, including my own—who misuse phrases like, “Hey, I’d hit that!” to mean, “You better stop talking before you get yourself into trouble.”
While a joke about an older parent misapplying a trendy expression in an uncomfortable context is low-hanging comedic fruit, EXmas’ cast has shockingly deft comedic timing, consistently nails punchlines that should be trite. The film’s dialogue comes across so natural that it feels improvisational, and writer Dan Steele’s wonderful screenplay is packed with amusing asides that make the film feel like a family affair, instead of merely plopping a bunch of poorly written puppets into the movie to orbit Ali and Graham as they compete for the affection of Graham’s loved ones.
Meester and Amell share this same fabulous chemistry, portraying the convincing push-and-pull of two exes who find themselves in a strange situation. Ali and Graham still have love for each other, but they also broke up for very real reasons. Happily, the film’s script doesn’t coddle viewers, and the couple’s history is doled out throughout the movie’s runtime, instead of plunked into a few scenes of exposition at the top. This blessed decision gives audiences beats to relish how Graham and Ali still know each other and remember the kinds of small details that only couples with real intimacy can recall. When hijinks ensue, that detailed writing pays off in droves.
Leave it to a talent as polished as Meester to make a FreeVee original feel about as good as a theatrical rom-com. Her expressive face and memorable line deliveries help EXmas float to its finish line; if I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: If there’s one actress who always delivers despite the strength of the content, it’s her. But Amell is a fantastic match, a fount of charisma who oozes enough sex and charm to nearly make viewers side with Graham—if Meester weren’t such a capable co-lead.
In Amell and Meester’s hands, EXmas manages to be one million times better than it has any right to be, a respectable confirmation that holiday movies can still be good, and not just so bad that they’re good. It’s a nuanced, realistic romance and a comedy sharp enough to make you bust out laughing, no matter how much arrogant pride you try to maintain as you hit play on a movie that’s streaming completely for free. Here’s 2023’s proof that, though holiday content fatigue is very much real, the best gifts are the ones you never thought to ask for.
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