Warning: Spoilers below!
A lot of “important” movies came out this week. There’s “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald,” the newest installment of the “Harry Potter” franchise; “Widows,” the critically acclaimed new thriller from Steve McQueen and Gillian Flynn; and the new Benedict Cumberbatch rendition of “The Grinch,” if you’re into that. But today, we’re here to talk about an arguably more essential cultural event: the Netflix original movie “The Holiday Calendar.”
“The Holiday Calendar” is a timeless tale, providing an answer to the eternal question: What would happen if an Advent calendar began predicting the future and changed your life? What if a religious timekeeper helped you fall in love and start a business with your best friend?
Starring Kat Graham and Quincy Brown, “The Holiday Calendar” follows Abby, a struggling photographer who is spending the Christmas season taking pictures of kids on Santa’s lap at a local holiday market. Her old best friend, Josh, has been traveling the world taking photographs and dating cool people, but he’s returned to town and is eager to rekindle their friendship ... at least. Then Abby meets Ty (Ethan Peck), a sexy doctor who begins to court her ― and all the while, a magical holiday calendar Abby’s grandma left to her has been predicting their meet-cutes and dates. It seems like her Christmas miracle is finally here!
Because Claire is a bonafide holiday movie fiend who would inject Christmas magic into her veins if she could, and Priscilla was very hungover last week and watched “The Holiday Calendar” twice, they had a lot to say to each other about this festive flirt-fest.
Priscilla: Hello, ho, ho, Claire! It is an honor to discuss “The Holiday Calendar” with you, given your status as a true connoisseur of holiday rom-coms. So tell me, what do you love about the genre?
Claire: Yes, the Hallmark watcher has logged on! It is I! One thing I really like about the genre is watching them with you while drinking hot cider. I am exactly the cheesy Christmas-loving winter fanatic that these seasonal films depict, and we all love to watch gorgeous versions of ourselves onscreen.
More to the point, I love that holiday rom-coms either work as romantic comedies, which is my favorite type of movie, or they fail in a hilariously extreme way that reveals a fundamental insufficiency to the task, much like this ferret trying to leap between tables. For example, I recently watched one in which a woman travels all the way to New York from Boston to get in touch with a ballet dancer she thinks is engaged to her amnesiac patient. This is the era of email and social media, but nice try at creating a plausible plot beat.
But let’s talk about this new Netflix offering, which I believe falls into the “success” end of the spectrum. I found it to be a more elevated version of what you might find on the Hallmark channel. Do you agree?
Priscilla: To be honest, I haven’t watched a Hallmark holiday movie since we binged on them together last year in the spirit of journalism. (Another shameless plug for ourstory.) So when I watched THC, I wouldn’t say “elevated” is the word that came to mind.
I’m thinking about the very first scene in the movie, when Abby, our heroine, is working her unfulfilling day job as a photographer for a cheesy holiday studio and her long-lost, hot best friend Josh, freshly back from “finding his voice” in Europe, comes in to surprise her.
He enters the studio and takes a seat in front of the backdrop as Abby runs through the studio’s canned spiel about passport photos without realizing it’s him. When she finally sees him through the lens of her camera she exclaims “Josh!” and gallops over for a huge hug. It’s just so wonderfully stupid and unrealistic that she wouldn’t notice him when he walked in. Or that he wouldn’t call or text his best friend to say he’s moving home??
I mean, these implausibilities pale in comparison to the central conceit of the film, that Abby is gifted a magical Advent calendar that predicts the future. If you were in Abby’s situation, at what point would you start thinking, OK, I didn’t think magic was real, but it looks like this antique calendar is controlling my life now?
Claire: Their chemistry and genuine warmth, in this scene, is on a level I have yet to see in a made-for-TV holiday movie. I was seduced! Enraptured! I wanted to watch them put their mouths together from the very first moment! I think the point is that she is really going through the motions with this job, so numbed by it that she’s not even seeing the world around her ― although this is exactly what her photographer’s spirit should be calling her to do. And if you think a guy wanting to surprise his friend with his return home is implausible, I am impressed at the caliber of the movies you’ve been watching.
But let’s back up a bit: Abby and Josh were best friends growing up and they got into photography together. Since then, he’s traveled the world as a travel blogger and photographer, while she’s been grinding away at this uninspiring job. But he’s back, maybe for good, just in time for Christmas!
That night, at her family’s tree-decorating gathering, her grandfather gives her a gift: her late grandmother’s antique wooden Advent calendar. She thinks it’s broken because she can’t open the doors, but instead, the doors start opening on their own every night, revealing little wooden toys. And then ... the toys start predicting the future! In the morning, the calendar gives her boots; later that day, Josh gives her a pair of cute Italian booties. Magic!
I have to say, I don’t think I would ever attribute this to supernatural forces. Would you?
Priscilla: Most definitely, day one. I would be proselytizing in Candy Cane Square by day four. Although, now that I think of it, since all of the toys popping out of this calendar are Christmas-centric, and Abby is living in a small town that’s obsessed with Christmas and working as a damn elf, it seems probable that she’d encounter nutcrackers, carolers, Christmas trees and the like on a daily basis.
Let’s return to Abby and Josh though, because as an Art Critic, I have to talk about their Art. Josh is the one pursuing his dreams as a travel blog photographer, traveling around ~hostels~ in ~Europe~. (Also, we must take a minute to honor his amazing circa 2006 skinny scarf, the likes of which I haven’t seen since the popular girls at my high school rocked matching ones.) Abby, on the other hand, is stuck in her humdrum day job taking studio holiday portraits, too scared to pursue her dream career of taking studio portraits not for the holidays. At one point, Josh comes to her (bizarrely fancy) studio apartment and sees her photography work, essentially black-and-white photos of shadows, I think?
What did you think of Abby’s photography? Does she have what it takes to make it in the art world? Would you ever date a “travel blog photographer”? Does such a thing even exist?
Claire: Priscilla, you are the art critic in this conversation! Her shadow photos sort of reminded me of a time in high school photography class when I took a photo of the river near my house and the flash reflected against a branch, which showed up white against the rest of the photo. I thought this was Very Arty. I think I even submitted it for a local student art competition, in which I Did Not Place. But what do you think?
I would totally date a travel blog photographer, and from the little I know of the industry, I do think it’s possible to make money as a travel blogger and freelance photographer. I follow people on Instagram who live high on the hog by taking photos of themselves drinking lattés in silk pleated skirts, so I don’t see why not.
Priscilla: I love the photos, they are the visual equivalent of my favorite poem in first grade, “My Shadow” by Robert Louis Stevenson, about how we all have shadows that follow us wherever we do, like ghostly stalkers. The one of the kid jumping on the pogo stick is especially haunting. It’s like, the shadows are the ghosts of our childhood, reminding us of time’s fleeting nature before it’s too late, you know? (*Hits bong.*) I’m pretty sure that’s what Abby was trying to communicate.
Claire: Dang, that’s beautiful. Honestly, anything is art if you look at it the right way, that’s my position.
Priscilla, it’s time to talk about Ty, the second gorgeous hunk of man to swoon over Abby in this film. One day, the Advent calendar shows Abby a Christmas tree, and that night, an ineptly tied Christmas tree falls from Ty’s car into the path of Abby’s. They meet, sparks fly; they exchange some actually witty banter about murdering evergreens, which I enjoyed. He is insanely handsome, a single dad, and a doctor, and he ends up pursuing Abby through over-the-top dates and gifts. Do you think Ty was possibly too perfect for an also-ran love interest?
Priscilla: Oh Ty, what a hot potato! I think they messed up in making him too sexy for his own good. He looks like Dominic West circa “Chicago,” is a single dad who sews his daughter handmade dance costumes, and, God forbid, takes Abby on cute dates!
The narrative was that his dates were so over the top Abby felt like he was putting on a show, but I call bullshit. Going to dinner, drinking hot chocolate, riding the trolley, ice skating ― those sweet (if not totally age-appropriate) dates that you can definitely get to know someone during. It’s not like he’s Christian Grey chartering a copter for the night or something. And their chemistry was hot as hell. I thought they were about to make sweet Christmas love on that fallen Xmas tree.
I was sad they broke up, although that was one of my favorite scenes. Abby makes the bold choice to tell her new beau she owns a Christmas calendar with magic powers, and he is understandably skeptical. Then she gets furious and breaks up with him. Clearly, he’s shocked their love story came to an end because of an antique, and he’s all “whatever.” Later, however, Ty comes to his senses and apologizes for not taking her calendar more seriously. I worry that Grandpa accidentally ruined Abby’s life with this gift, prompting her to break things off with a sexy doctor for an Instagram influencer who’s too scared to make a move.
Claire: Ty is soooo dreamy. It felt like they had to throw the emergency brake to bring the romance to a screeching halt. That said, in retrospect, I am suspicious of Ty. What single dad has time for nightly lavish dates with a woman he barely knows? (I say this as someone whose dad was dating while raising us ― once a week was about all he could manage.) Apparently, he’s sewing his kid dance uniforms but hiring a babysitter to make her dinner every single night so he can get laid. I was firmly on his side during the Advent calendar break-up, however: Abby can’t stand even a moment’s light teasing about the fact that she believes a wooden calendar is predicting the future? Chill, lady. Accept that you are insane. As you mentioned before, this calendar’s “predictions” are along the lines of, “You will encounter a Christmas tree today,” which, given that she is spending all day in a Christmas village taking Santa photos, is weak. Ty compares it to a horoscope reading, and he is correct.
Priscilla: There was one other factor that led to the couple’s eventual disintegration: the soup kitchen visit. Ty takes Abby to a soup kitchen, saying he volunteers there all the time. Then two men living there tell Abby he’s full of shit and takes women there to show off. I feel like ... this is fine! Everyone volunteers for selfish reasons and it’s the action that counts more than the intention. What are your thoughts on #soupgate?
Claire: The soup kitchen! We diverge sharply on this point. I think Ty is full of shit. It’s certainly better to volunteer than not, but SHE is supposed to be getting to know HIM. For her purposes, it’s extremely relevant whether she’s choosing to be with a guy who is passionate about charity or whether she’s falling for his slick pick-up gimmick. He told her he takes his daughter there once a month, and instead, it turns out he only comes with hot dates now and then. It’s also telling that he twice dismisses the idea of getting to know the people who visit the soup kitchen, even mocking the idea that she might take relationship advice from guys who “live on the street.” Disrespectful, my man.
To return to the holiday calendar for a moment, it’s just occurred to me that the whole central conceit of the movie is ... irrelevant? I don’t see how it affected any part of the plot. She happened to meet a hot guy, they date, they turn out to be incompatible, and she realizes she’s in love with her best friend; the Advent calendar might “predict” parts of this, but doesn’t seem to influence it. Is “The Holiday Calendar” flawed at its core?
Priscilla: Sadly, I think so, but that only contributes to this movie’s deranged greatness. The Advent calendar is clearly dabbling with some occult shit, and the spirits aren’t always on your side! I mean, Abby was almost smushed to death by a candy cane. She should know better than to blindly trust her magic toys. And how did her grandma die again anyway?! But the real love story here is between Abby and Father Christmas. She starts out a grinch and ends up addicted to that holiday cheer.
Obviously, my next question is, what does Abby’s grandpa (Ron Cephas Jones) ― who gifted her the cursed box ― know? Is he to be trusted?
Claire: I don’t trust Gramps! By the end, it seems like he’s scheming to get her together with Josh ― which happens to be cute because she’s into Josh, too, but what if she weren’t? What if your grandpa kept trying to manipulate you into dating your high school buddy when all you wanted was to get swept off your feet by a chiseled doctor?
But Josh needs the help because the road hasn’t been easy. When Abby meets Ty before Josh has a chance to make his move, he backs off and pines for a while (I am a sucker for pining; bear with me). She even stands him up at the movies because her date with the doc runs overtime. Then he manages to get her fired ― by accident, of course ― and suddenly the two aren’t even speaking. If you were Abby, would you give Josh a shot after all this?
Priscilla: It doesn’t seem like there are too many dating options in their small town, so I guess if Josh is hot and single (and willing to buy me an art gallery), I would be down. But I would consult with the Advent calendar first, of course.
This movie was full of silly, cheesy, cringeworthy moments, as holiday movies are. What was your favorite?
Claire: I loved so many moments in this movie, and for that, I have to give credit to the cast, especially Kat Graham. She’s sparkling, she has a gorgeous, expressive face, and she has chemistry with every character, including the Advent calendar. Watching her be longed for and pursued was so much fun for me. I loved Abby’s cheesy bit with Josh, where he pretends to take snapshots of her (shades of Jim and Pam’s wedding in “The Office”).
But the most ridiculous touch, for me, was at the last moment, when the camera zooms out on the photography gallery he co-bought for them while they were still in a fight (which, what??). The gallery is called ... Magic Calendar Gallery. I mean! She specifically wanted this business in order to do her own, tasteful, art photography, and then she gave it the kind of name that says, “Come on in for all your scented candle and Santa tchotchke needs.” A gallery named “Magic Calendar” should sell only knockoffs of Thomas Kinkade paintings. A very made-for-TV holiday movie choice. What about you?
Priscilla: I love when initially Abby thinks her Advent calendar is broken because none of the little doors open ― obviously, before she learns it’s magic ― and she says “Thanks, Gram” in this wonderfully salty way. Like, “thanks a lot for this broke-ass calendar, dead grandma!” I also love the detail that Josh is literally always eating cookies when he’s onscreen. This way, we know he has that big Xmas energy. But what kind of grown man is always, always scarfing down cookies? I do not know him and I do not care to.
Claire: I wish my husband were always eating cookies. It really hurts my feelings that I have to eat them all myself.
But WAIT, I just remembered the most important moment in the whole film: When Abby, deep in a post-breakup and post-firing funk, cues up a roster of Netflix romantic comedies on her TV, including “The Christmas Prince” and “A Christmas Inheritance.” The image takes up nearly the whole shot, which created the startling effect that for a moment I thought I had clicked back to the Netflix menu myself. It’s the least subtle product placement since “Morning Joe” partnered with Starbucks. (And trust me, anyone who is watching “The Holiday Calendar” already knows about “The Christmas Prince.”)
Priscilla: Apparently they do it in “A Princess Switch,” too! One of the Vanessa Hudgenses is watching “The Christmas Switch” in the movie. It’s like “The Human Centipede” of Netflix holiday flicks!
Claire: Netflix, you’re drunk.
Any parting thoughts on this latest addition to the holiday romantic comedy canon?
Priscilla: My parting thought is ... I would recommend this movie to anyone who loves cheesy holiday love stories or to an arch nemesis who is only into pretentious documentaries. It will inspire you to bone your best friend and wear a skinny scarf like you’re Ashlee Simpson in the early aughts.
Claire: No one has ever needed to inspire me to do the first, and nothing will ever inspire me to do the latter!
Priscilla: What about you? Would you recommend?
Claire: I recommend that anyone who enjoys a cozy night of romance check this movie out. Make a plate of sugar cookies. Put on a fluffy robe. Buy a commercial space for your crush and text them about it coyly. Live a little.
This has been “Should You Watch It?” a weekly examination of movies and TV worth ― or not worth! ― your time.