Every Time a Bell Rings (2021)

We're trying to catch up on at least a few Hallmark Christmas movies this year. We mostly dropped them a while ago, in part because we got tired of writing what felt like the same review over and over again, and in part because it became easier to watch similar offerings from streaming services we were already subscribed to. But after stumbling across a few better-than-average offerings, we found ourselves wondering if the production company had improved, or if we'd just seen a few anomalies. Consider this a data point in what will no doubt be a long attempt to answer that question.

And this data point is a check in the "anomalies" column. Every Time a Bell Rings is a Christmas dramedy centered around three adopted sisters, now grown up, dealing with unresolved issues, life events, and the loss of their father, all while reviving a childhood tradition in which they complete a scavenger hunt to try and locate a bell family legend claims grants wishes. I'll tell you upfront the movie gets a modicum of credit for not taking the obvious twist of having the bell actually do anything magical, or revealing the clues are hidden by the father's ghost, or any of the other unearned fantasy cliches these things often employ. There's a mystery in this around who's hiding the clues in place of the girls' late father, but the resolution is refreshingly mundane in nature. It's actually the most likely and logical person: their mom's hiding the stupid clues. That's better than where I thought this was going.

The movie also gets some credit for a couple character choices. One of the sisters is gay and gets a subplot around starting a relationship, which is (astonishingly) still unusual for this studio. Another sister's storyline concerns her dealing with pressure from her mother and husband to start a family, despite the fact she's focused on her career. The fact the ending doesn't involve her deciding family must always come first generally feels like growth on Hallmark's part.

If acknowledging the existence of queer people and affirming that women are permitted to be more than incubators sounds like absurdly low bars for something made in 2021, recall this is Hallmark we're talking about. Baby steps.

I assume you're wondering about the title. For better or worse, the reference to It's a Wonderful Life is entirely superficial. This is set in Natchez, Mississippi, not upstate New York, the family isn't named "Bailey", and I didn't catch any connections, aside from the fact both movies technically contain a bell. As far as I can tell, the title is a cheap gimmick to cash in on the iconic phrase.

Let's try and touch on the plot here. It's not going to be easy, because each of the three sisters is given their own mini-arc, and none of them have much substance. Charlotte feels like the closest thing this has to an actual lead - she even gets two mini-arcs - so we'll start with her.

First, Charlotte is reconnecting with Liam, her best friend from childhood. So expect a generic Hallmark love story in which two people kindle a relationship, said relationship runs into hilariously forced complications, then said complications are overcome by the characters shrugging, because it was never a big deal to begin with.

The content of said complication ties in to Charlotte's other arc, which is the closest this movie offers to anything actually happening. Charlotte has always wanted to connect with her birth mother, and she finally gets around to calling the agency, which gladly sends her the information. Why did she wait this long to fulfill a lifelong goal? No clue! Moving on.

She reaches out to her birth mother by phone and the woman is happy to hear from her, eager to meet up, and not at all pushy. They meet in person and get along great, but Charlotte lies to her sisters about where she's going. Liam is slightly upset that she's lying, which causes the two of them to fight. Eventually she confesses the truth to her sisters, who are even more upset, which would feel weird even if they weren't also adopted and likely to be more sensitive to Charlotte's conflicting emotions. But the manufactured drama isn't going to manufacture itself, so there we go. Plus, "honesty is good" seems to be the theme of this thing, as evidenced by...

Emily's story. She's a workaholic whose husband is fixated on having kids. She's not ready, but the real conflict comes from her not being honest about those feelings. Eventually, she tells him the truth, and he's upset enough that he goes for a walk to process.

Sister #3 is Nora, the least financially successful of the trio. She's moved back in with their mom, and her plot line centers around her meeting a cute woman, occasionally flirting, then eventually starting a relationship. They don't even bother introducing obstacles or drama to Nora's relationship, which makes it feel less like a story and more like an attempt to inject some representation into the movie.

Don't get me wrong: this is better than nothing, but it's still a long way from even approaching anything meaningful. The lack of an arc in her relationship makes her feel less significant than her sisters, despite getting a decent amount of screen time.

Astonishingly, Nora's romance was still enough to generate pushback. The actress playing her had to contend with online attacks and hate, which is depressing and kind of pathetic. The idea of being outraged by anything in this movie baffles me: it's bland and inoffensive to a fault. Anyone who manages to be offended by this should be removed from society for their own safety, lest their head explode after watching something more challenging, such as an episode of Full House or drying paint.

Do I even need to specify that everything works out for the characters? Eventually, everyone just talks through their non-existent problems, family members hug, couples kiss, and everyone's emotional issues just kind of evaporate. Because of course they do.

That's more or less the concept, but it barely begins to describe the experience of watching this. The bulk of the movie is only tangentially concerned with any of the plotlines - those are more an excuse for characters to act lovingly towards each other and tear up. Constantly. Every few scenes, someone starts crying for no real reason. Sure, these moments always follow supposed revelations and moments of heartfelt catharsis, but the stuff being revealed never has any weight. They're essentially crying about nothing. It gets kind of funny after a while.

Then there are all the minor characters. Other than the three sisters, everyone is written like a robot programmed to be helpful and upbeat. Every love interest and side character is devoid of personality and ambition (aside from Emily's husband's fixation on reproducing, and even he just needs a moment to reboot). There's no conflict, no stress, and no real point to any of it.

Well, no point save one. The characters run around to so many bakeries and landmarks in Natchez, Mississippi, you'd swear it was produced by the town's tourist board. Maybe it drummed up business.

Tonally, this is a mix of comedy and drama. Neither of which work, but the comedy occasionally comes close. The moments when the sisters are having fun together and reverting to their younger personalities are by far the high points. It's a shame the bulk of the movie isn't spent on this.

The cast is fine - the character issues are the fault of the script, not the actors. The most notable cast member is Dee Wallace, who plays the mother. She's had an interesting career, including roles in E.T. and a number of horror movies.

This is far from the worst of these we've come across, but there's very little reason to bother with this. It's nice to see Hallmark not treating a reluctance to have kids as a flaw, and I'm glad they're starting to acknowledge the existence of gay people, but this is still fundamentally boring and badly written.