Holiday Heritage (2022)

Over the past year or so, Hallmark has been quietly rebranding itself in an attempt to offer at least the appearance of representation. The area they've been attracting the most attention has been their recent pivot towards including same-sex couples, but that's hardly the only change in programming. After years of fixating only on Christmas, the company has finally decided to keep focusing on Christmas. But, you know, also toss in a Kwanzaa movie. That's also about Christmas. So a Christmas/Kwanzaa movie.

That's where Holiday Heritage, a family dramedy with a side of romance, comes into the picture. The movie's main character is Ella, a successful Boston graphic designer planning to open her own company and go into business for herself. But that's an "after the holidays" thing - first she's going to return home to the small town in Pennsylvania where she grew up, because there's no way in hell Hallmark's going to make a movie about Kwanzaa that isn't safely entrenched in small-town, USA.

A little more than a year ago, Ella's grandfather passed away. He was the beloved town mayor who believed first and foremost in family. And he also loved Kwanzaa. And Christmas.

Ella's grandmother, Tess, runs a local bakery with her daughter, Micah. But their relationship isn't in a great place. Micah has dreams of her own: she wants to move to Chicago and open her own bakery, where she can make her own original recipes. Tess, meanwhile, is a stickler for tradition. And the two women have difficulty communicating, because this is a Hallmark movie. So Micah confides in Ella but doesn't tell her mother she's planning to leave town.

Finally, there's Griffin, Ella's ex-boyfriend and the new mayor. Later on, we learn he was planning to propose to Ella the night she broke up with him in order to leave for Boston. So, more drama.

The bulk of the movie is about Ella trying to get her mother and grandmother to talk through their issues. Christmas and Kwanzaa and the associated baked goods orders (including a large number of Kwanzaa cookies - don't ask) are sort of the catalyst for them coming together. Finally, Micah announces that she wants to leave for Chicago, Tess reacts badly, and everyone worries things won't end happily. Then Ella dredges up a recording of Grandpa saying family should stick together, which makes everything all right. Micah's still leaving, but she tells her mom how much she loves her, so it's okay. Also, Ella decides to move back and open her business there, since she didn't really like Boston, anyway. And that also means rekindling her romance with Griffin, because of course it does.

Before I start talking about how painful the experience of watching this was, I should probably take a moment and acknowledge the obvious: this wasn't made for me. This was of course produced to make money I mean to offer Hallmark viewers who celebrate Kwanzaa a movie reflecting and celebrating their experience. And I am woefully underqualified to rate that.

I'm assuming the depiction of the celebration was accurate - it felt accurate, for whatever that matters. And it was portrayed in a positive light. It wasn't the subject of any jokes (not that there were many jokes of any sort - this wasn't a comedy), and it seemed genuinely interested in promoting the custom. Assuming the movie didn't make a mistake that went completely over my head, I expect this will be received favorably by audiences who have waited far too long for something like this.

All that being said, I found the movie kind of excruciating.

The problem is the same one plaguing almost every Hallmark holiday drama I've seen: grounded drama doesn't really work at a G-rating with company mandates prohibiting tension or suspense. The issues Tess and Micah are going through just aren't compelling. Issues that can be permanently cleared up with a conversation and a few tears don't feel believable, particularly if the movie's insisting the family depends on it.

Likewise, Ella and Griffin's problems are just as silly. In keeping with the theme, it's all a matter of miscommunication: she didn't know how he felt about her, so she left. He didn't know she wanted him to come, so he didn't go with her. It's all so bland and void of emotion. That's not a problem unique to this movie - every Hallmark (and Hallmark adjacent) G-rated drama from recent history falls into this trap. Drama is meant to capture human nature, and human emotion is messy. If you remove sexuality, jealousy, rage, and the like, you're left with robots.

For what it's worth, the movie looks good. Most recent Hallmark movies I've seen have, as well. They seem to have figured out how to capture decorated streets and bakeries with a polished sheen that resembles coffee commercials. The visuals aren't exactly interesting, but they're certainly nice.

I'm glad the communities that will appreciate this movie have it, but I wish it had been a little less generically Hallmark, both thematically and visually. Or at the very least, I'd have preferred they went with one of their comedy templates: those are generally more watchable, as G-rated humor can occasionally still be funny, but I've yet to see them really pull off drama. Maybe next year they'll try a Kwanzaa romcom and have better luck.