EXmas (2023)

This is a low-budget holiday romcom released direct to Freevee, an ad-supported subservice of Amazon Prime, which was almost certainly rushed through filming prior to the strikes, with a premise likely reverse-engineered from the pun in the title; a pun that has already been used by multiple existing low-budget holiday productions. In a nutshell, it would be hard to imagine a series of warning flags more conclusive that the movie in question was going to be absolutely abysmal.

Which makes it all the more shocking that it's actually kind of good.

I want to be careful not to oversell this one, because it certainly isn't great. The movie has quite a few problems, including some structural ones, and the bulk of the jokes land closer to "amusing" than "hilarious." But there are a few truly standout moments of both comedy and drama, the cast does really solid work, and - perhaps most notably - Jonah Feingold's direction includes some interesting, smart choices that stand out from the typical formulaic TV romcom.

Let's talk story, a large portion of which can admittedly be extrapolated from that title. The main characters (and former engaged couple) are Ali (played by Leighton Meester) and Graham (played by Robbie Amell). Amell, incidentally, is the cousin of Stephen Amell, best known for playing the lead on the series Arrow, a connection the movie's hair department seems to have been instructed to highlight as much as possible. Since their break up six months earlier, Ali has stayed in touch with Graham's family, who had all but adopted her as one of their own.

When Graham calls to tell them he won't be able to make it home for Christmas due to a deadline at work, they secretly invite Ali to spend the holidays with them. But of course, Graham decides to surprise everyone by showing up anyway and finds his ex-fiancé already there. Ali and Graham have a host of unresolved issues and - after making a pact that whoever gets asked to leave does so for good - sabotage each other in a series of cruel, childish pranks leveraging their respective knowledge of Graham's extended family (he of course grew up with them, but Ali's actually been spending more time with them recently). They also wind up with potential romantic interests of their own: Graham's father's best employee tries to win Ali, and Graham nearly hooks up with someone who had a crush on him in high school.

Neither work out, however: the guy Ali's interested in is too obsessed with his job, going so far as to try and sell her a car on a date. Graham's date hits a snag, too, when she reveals she actually wants him to take part in a three-way with her and a male roommate (by rights, the scene where all that plays out should be excruciating, but a series of VERY good choices from both the actor and director instead results in the funniest moment in the movie).

After that, Ali and Graham wind up sleeping together and realize they still have feelings for each other. One night doesn't resolve their issues, however - that takes Graham's father having a heart attack (he survives, thanks to Graham), which results in Graham reconsidering some choices he's made in life.

That's the basic outline, though it's worth noting the movie spends a great deal of time fleshing out Graham's family (it kind of has to, since the movie hinges on the idea the two leads are effectively fighting over them for most of the movie). Graham's parents are coded as relatively conservative, though not intolerant. His sister is an open lesbian dealing with a breakup of her own, and his younger brother is in school. All are the kind of over-the-top characters you'd typically find in a movie centered around a dysfunctional family Christmas. EXmas is almost an extension of that subgenre, with the unusual caveat that the family, while eccentric, isn't dysfunctional, excluding Graham.

Whether Graham is as much to blame for his issues as the movie claims is another matter. The flaws he needs to overcome concern his inability to work with his partner and a failure of priorities around his job, but I'm not sure the movie really sells either. The former feels somewhat tacked on - we're not really shown this aspect of his personality until just before he resolves it, which is a pretty large issue. His problems around balancing work and relationships, meanwhile, come off as unfair in light of what we see of said work. I'm not saying he's blameless, mind you, but his larger "flaw" through most of the movie is that the script calls for him to be kind of a dick.

It's also worth noting that the premise requires the viewer to accept that his family effectively adopting his ex despite her breaking up with him is a sympathetic act, which is a bit of a hard sell. Graham's reaction is treated like it's irrational, but... is it really? That's a pretty awful thing to do to someone.

The larger issue, however, is with the arc of Graham and Ali's relationship. The movie essentially skips from having them at each other's throats to them reconsidering their decision to break up without any real transition. There's a missing beat here - hell, maybe several missing beats - and it undermines the story considerably. It partially makes up for the oversight with some well-executed emotional scenes between the two of them in the last act. The film doesn't really connect its dots, but the dots themselves are well constructed.

Individual scenes are the movie's strength throughout, in fact. Setting aside whether the story works as a whole, there are a lot of inspired decisions elevating various moments, such as the sequence where Graham's attempted fling comes crashing down. It's not the dialogue that makes his reaction funny; it's the performance coupled with the way the sequence is paced and framed. The punchline isn't his reaction so much as the implied decision-making process that went into that reaction - my guess is that wasn't spelled out in the script.

Likewise, there are numerous moments where interesting and bizarre camera angles are utilized to give the movie an exaggerated feel, or shots are cleverly framed to give a moment depth or weight. None of this is unusual for major motion pictures, of course, but in my experience television romcoms - particularly ones at or around this budget - rarely bother to try.

What makes all that even more striking is that it stands in contrast to moments in the same film that feel extremely rushed. There are sequences that look as if they were shot on bluescreen, shots where whatever fake snow was being used to simulate a midwestern winter clearly didn't extend to foliage in the background, and even one shot where they seemingly forgot to remove Christmas decorations from a scene that was supposed to be a flashback.

I haven't found much information about this online, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if filming was rushed to wrap up before the start of the strike. That's just a guess, but it would certainly explain the disconnect.

This falls just short of qualifying for a recommendation, but the fact it came at all close seems somewhat miraculous. I don't expect this kind of effort from a movie like this, particularly not one made for an ad-supported streaming service.