Christmas at the Ranch (2021)

There have been a substantial number of Christmas romcoms released direct to streaming over the past few years, too many for us to even try keeping up with. We attempt to get around to the most notable ones, but even then it's felt like a race against a malfunctioning automated assembly line. Christmas at the Ranch got on our radar because it's one of a small (though thankfully not as small as it once was) number of LGBTQ+ holiday movies.

For better or worse, that turns out to be most of what makes Christmas at the Ranch different from the scores of other Christmas romcoms: aside from the fact both leads are women, this is fairly generic as far as these things go. I'm aware that can be a selling point to a number of people who love the subgenre and have been starved for representation. There's nothing wrong with making what amounts to a Hallmark romcom with a lesbian couple, since Hallmark's been slow to meet that demand (to be fair, they've made a few now, but that corner of the market is far from full).

The outline here is pretty formulaic. Haley (played by Laur Allen) is a big-city marketing executive at a tech startup trying to sell to investors. Meanwhile, her family's ranch is on the brink of collapse. If they don't straighten out their books soon, the place will go under. Her brother convinces her to come home for Christmas, and she meets the ranch's one remaining farmhand, a cowgirl named Kate, played by Amanda Righetti, who....

Okay, time for an aside. You remember that scene in the first Captain America movie where Steve wakes up in what appears to be a 1940s New York hospital and there's a nurse who's really a disguised S.H.I.E.L.D. agent there trying to keep him calm? Righetti was the nurse/agent. She's done quite a bit, in fact, and is easily this movie's strongest asset, which is saying something considering....

Okay, second aside. Haley's grandmother (the only surviving member of her family other than her aforementioned brother) is played by Lindsay Wagner, the Bionic Woman. So, that's cool. Though it's also a little distracting, because the ages don't quite work. Frankly, this would have worked better if they'd just said Wagner was playing her mother, but then they couldn't have done the whole "her parents died in a car crash" traumatic reveal later on.

At any rate, Haley and Kate do not hit it off at first, despite finding each other attractive. They butt heads for a variety of contrived reasons. Needless to say, their feelings towards one another start to soften as they spend time together. Where that time's coming from is a little less clear, as Haley's spending most of her nights working on a presentation for her boss and most of her days going through the ranch's financial documents looking for a way to save the business.

After the requisite amount of montages and awkward encounters, Haley and Kate fall for each other, only to run into trouble when Haley's traumatic past catches up with her, leading to an argument with Kate, who has her own family issues (there was a fallout, but not for the reason you'd assume). Also, Haley reveals there's no goddamn way to dig the ranch out of its financial hole and recommends they just give up and sell. She heads back to the city, where her boss reveals they succeeded in selling the startup thanks to the presentation she made, which means Haley's stock entitles her to a massive, life-changing payout.

They actually set up the whole stock thing at the beginning. They left the amount ambiguous enough for it to never occur to Haley she could just use the money to pay off the ranch's loan, though not ambiguous enough for the audience to ever wonder how this was going to end. Like I said: formula.

She hurries back, pays off the bank, helps her grandmother tell off a couple rival ranch owners trying to buy (which is odd, because - despite telling us they're shitheads the whole movie, they actually seemed pretty generous, all things considered), and reconciles with Kate via posterboards in what I assume was an homage to Love Actually. Somewhere in there she also comes up with a gimmick to drum up business: marketing the ranch as a destination for city folk to vacation and do ranch stuff. So... she basically invents the concept of a ranch while standing on a ranch in a movie called Christmas at the Ranch, and everyone decides it's brilliant.

The word to describe the movie is uneven. There are some sequences that are funny and/or charming, but they're mixed in with scenes that are rushed and poorly thought out. I haven't been able to track down much information on who financed this, but the sets have the look of independent productions with minuscule budgets. How well it's shot seems to vary from scene to scene. At times it looks pretty decent, but at others it starts to feel like a college student picked up the camera and began recording without working out basic choreography. I suspect that's not far from the truth: this definitely has the vibe of a movie where their time to shoot in certain locations was severely limited.

It's the same with the characters - they're likable for the most part, but there are a number of moments that feel out of place or just bizarre, such as someone in 2021 not understanding why a "social network emergency" might be an actual thing a corporate executive needs to take seriously.

Do I even need to spell out how and why the holidays are used as a setting? The movie's following the same basic outline used by thousands of Hallmark and similar romantic Christmas comedies, and the season is incorporated in precisely the same way - it's the exact mix of nostalgic reflection and new starts these have been playing off of for decades.

When I say this adheres to Hallmark's formula, I should specify that applies to structure, not content. That's a good thing, incidentally: Hallmark Christmas romcoms seem to exist in a world where sex literally doesn't exist as a concept. Here, it clearly does. That's not to say this is in any way risqué - we're still basically talking G-rated, unless I missed a swear or two. But it's a "harder" G, where the leads actually seem to be physically attracted to each other, and there's a subplot about a joke about crabs.

Whether you should think about tracking this down or not depends on whether the premise is something you're drawn to. As I said before, LGBTQ+ holiday media remains frustratingly rare, and I know there are countless fans of Christmas movies eager to see themselves reflected on screen. If that's you, my guess is you won't care what anyone else thinks of this film (nor should you). I do want to caution that viewers conditioned by Lifetime, Hallmark, and Netflix offerings to expect a constant barrage of high-quality decorations and iconic Christmas imagery aren't going to find it here. The ground isn't covered in snow, and lights and decorations look like they were sourced from the Home Depot (and on a budget at that).

Also, it's worth noting the representation in this is fairly surface-level. The movie doesn't explore Kate or Haley's sexuality, and there's little hint of them having ever faced prejudice. You could quite literally change Kate's gender in the script, and there wouldn't be a single remaining indication this had ever been a same-sex couple. Again, that may be a negative or a positive, depending on what you want out of this. I'm aware there are diehard fans of this subgenre who genuinely just want a version of the movies they've been seeing for years where the leads look like they do. At the same time, there are viewers who are understandably annoyed by media depicting LGBTQ+ relationships as interchangeable with straight couples.

If you're not interested in this precise concept, there's nothing here that's going to win you over. This has a few good performances and fun moments, but on the whole it feels low-budget and a tad amateurish, particularly if you're used to the much more polished holiday movies being offered by the big companies. It's not exactly bad for what it is, but what it is has a pretty specific target audience. If you're part of that audience, by all means enjoy. Everyone else should probably skip it.