The Holiday Sitter (2022)

I'm not sure Hallmark deserves much credit for producing their first Christmas romcom centered around a same-sex couple this late in the game. Lifetime, Netflix, Hulu, and virtually everyone else beat them to this, so the gesture feels a bit hollow. Still, late is better than never, and it really seems like they're taking steps to rectify their historic trend of focusing almost entirely on straight, white couples.

The good news is that, to the extent these kinds of TV movies can meaningfully be called "good," this is pretty solid. It's still beholden to the usual ridgid formula, is forbidden from including any actual tension, and is as aggressively G-rated as the rest of Hallmark's annual yuletide offerings, but within the confines of the template, it's charming, sweet, and amusing. "Good movie" is a higher bar than "good Hallmark movie," and while it sails over the latter bar, I'm honestly on the fence as to whether it clears the former. For those of you trying to calibrate, though, I'd rank this above Three Wise Men and a Baby, which was already quite good for the company.

The Holiday Sitter refers to Sam (Jonathan Bennett), a New York City PR consultant drafted into babysitting for his sister at Christmas while she and her husband travel to complete an adoption when the birth mother goes into labor a week early. Sam is oblivious when it comes to kids and suburban life, so he hires the family's neighbor and contractor, Jason (George Krissa), as a "consultant uncle" to help him figure out the ropes.

Jason agrees, in part because he likes the kids and the family, but also because he needs some money to hire the adoption lawyer Sam's sister and brother-in-law used. Jason has always wanted a family of his own and is ready to adopt, despite failing to find a partner interested in settling down, getting married, and adopting with him. Note this contrasts with Sam's instincts, which are to live free of responsibilities. Sam isn't anywhere near as focused on his family, which is portrayed as a character flaw. The idea he was originally planning to spend Christmas alone in Hawaii consistently shocks other characters he interacts with throughout the movie (including Jason, at first).

Obviously, this is the hurdle to Sam and Jason becoming a couple that needs to be overcome, and the growth is entirely on Sam's side, with Jason serving as more of a passive character. Just so we're clear, that's not an issue with the script: these things can be structured with either one or two protagonists - this opted for one.

The runtime is padded out with side stories for the two kids: a 13-year-old boy joining a local Christmas play due to having a crush on Jason's niece and a seven-year-old girl anxious both about the possibility her parents won't make it back for Christmas and by the prospect of no longer being the youngest member of the family. Naturally, Sam is able to coach the kids through their problems and in the process learns the joy of family himself. He's also indirectly able to get the kids' parents back for Christmas morning by figuring out a way to get a message to their father, who in turn meets them in a vehicle capable of handling the inclement weather that's threatening to keep them away.

Because these things can't end without a third-act hiccup, Sam and Jason are close to kissing when everyone arrives. Then, in the confusion, Sam pays Jason for his help, which Jason interprets as reducing the experience to a transaction, and... look. If you've ever seen one of these before, you know the drill - there's a contrived misunderstanding requiring a few minutes of mutual soul searching, a couple conversations with loved ones, then both characters mutually rushing to tell the other how they feel. This miscommunication is a tad below par, honestly, though the movie more than makes up for it when Sam discusses the matter with his sister.

See, up until this point, the movie felt a little like the script might have started out featuring a heterosexual couple, with one of the leads gender-swapped at the last minute. Aside from a goofy bit where Sam realizes Jason's gay because he's able to identify his shoes, there's really nothing in the story that made the sex of the leads seem relevant.

Then, as Sam's explaining why he questions if he'd be able to be the husband Jason needs, he points out that growing up he never believed having kids was even an option for him. It's a poignant moment that instantly recontextualizes his character throughout the film and offers some real weight to the movie as a whole. Emotional honesty is extremely rare in Hallmark holiday films, but this scene at least delivered.

There's a simple reason this moment worked, and it's the same a decent percent of jokes landed: Jonathan Bennett is quite good in this, both comedically and - when the movie calls for it - dramatically. He sells jokes that would otherwise fall flat, and his performance in the scene above was really impactful. 

With all that out of the way, let's start poking some holes in all the nice things I said about this. In case it wasn't obvious from the synopsis, this is still very much a Hallmark Christmas romcom, which means it's overflowing with clichés. In my experience, the company's movies have more or less stopped showing women giving up their careers in the city to marry a small-town guy and have a family (I think they realized they'd been leaning too heavily on that crutch), but apparently, they weren't averse to using that template for the first gay rom-com. To be fair, Sam doesn't sacrifice his career - the movie just implies he'll commute from the suburbs - but the premise of abandoning city life for superior small-town values is certainly in the subtext. I'm not certain this is actually a problem, as it's not tied to sexist gender roles, but I'm no fan of how these movies look down on cities.

I'm also getting a little tired of the insinuation there's something wrong with a person wanting to spend the holidays alone on vacation. The movie treats this like a mental disorder, which strikes me as irresponsible given the degree those who don't celebrate (or don't have families to celebrate with) are already alienated this time of year. Deciding not to go on vacation at Christmas shouldn't be a symbol for personal growth and responsibility. 

While several side characters in this get arcs of their own, I felt like the movie introduced threads that should probably have been fleshed out. The kids felt underdeveloped, and Sam's relationships with them came off as superficial. They really needed more time and more believable subplots to work. Likewise, there's a part of me that feels like we needed something about the birth mother involved in the adoption. We quite literally never see her, nor are we given any explanation for what was happening.

As a side note, the Christmas play Sam's nephew is in is an adaptation of The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. First, I was happy to see one of these feature a play that isn't the Nativity. I want to remind anyone reading this that the work in question endorses genocide and ties directly to non-fiction articles L. Frank Baum wrote on the subject. I don't think this should reflect negatively on the movie - I'd be shocked if the writers or producers were aware of any of this - but I feel strongly Baum's legacy needs to be reevaluated.

Let's get back to the movie. It's right on the cusp of deserving a recommendation, but I don't think it quite overcomes the Hallmarkness of the production. It really comes close, though. If the ending had been a tad better, it would have pulled it off. For a moment, it looks like the resolution was going to involve the leads comically chasing each other across town in dual attempts to profess their love, which could have been zany and fun enough to push it over the top. But that turned out to be a fake-out, leading to a by-the-numbers kiss on the porch.

Still, this is very good for Hallmark. I've only seen one other Christmas romcom from them I liked better, and that one actually subverted the usual tropes and clichés in favor of something genuinely surprising. This followed the formula to a T but managed to do so incredibly well. And, for what it's worth, this looks polished and modern (which I actually can't say about the one I preferred).

Ultimately, this is absolutely a recommendation if the phrase "Hallmark Christmas movie" doesn't disgust you. It's an indication the company has gotten much better at making these and continues to grow, both technically and in terms of representation. It's a decent film fans of the subgenre will love and others will... well, I think they'll be fine with it. Which honestly is high praise for any Hallmark movie.