When it comes to Christmas movies, certain things are prerequisites. In order to guarantee a happy ending that leaves you joyful, there has to be perfect romance, a quaint little town, and just the right amount of holiday cheer.
That type of rigid storytelling tends to get repetitive, which is why it’s imperative seasonal films have two necessary components to keep them standing out from the rest — chemistry, and humor.
An Unexpected Christmas has both.
This is an equal footing, duel protagonist vet. Lenz (Emily) and Hynes (Jamie) are well balanced as leads, with comparable focus. As exes, the characters they play feel like two people who easily could have been together at some point, but are now working through the post-breakup awkwardness.
The actors are incredibly comfortable in their roles. There is an obvious underlying tension between them, and the chemistry is there from the moment they step on screen together, until the film’s final moments.
Lenz and Hynes are especially down for the zany hijinks, jumping into the “we broke up but now have to pretend we’re still dating for…reasons” shenanigans that ensue almost immediately in the films first act. The two work so well as a comedic duo, half of their dialogue feels like improv — not a trademark of Hallmark’s typical tone.
With the exception of The Christmas House — which stars Lenz’s fellow One Tree Hill Alum Robert Buckley — An Unexpected Christmas may be the most natural and witty comedy to come out of Hallmark Channel.
Maybe next year the two can pair up and do a film of their own, leaving One Tree Hill fans everywhere overjoyed.
Beyond the fun-filled antics, the heart of An Unexpected Christmas still beats, crafting a believable dynamic between two people already in love, learning to get past themselves in order to find their way back to one another.
The film first breaks its mold with Jamie — a fun, clever, talented lead, who is much more interesting than the often cast good-looking man with a personality of cardboard. He is a fully fleshed-out character with goals, conflicts, and most importantly, flaws.
A man uncomfortable with his partner’s success, he feels stalled in his own career and therefore unworthy of her love.
The film centers around Jamie learning to move on from that antiquated notion, while never apologizing for Emily’s accomplishments, or dimming her light in order to make him look brighter.
If anything, Emily still feels slightly too good for Jamie, even by the film’s end. He works through his issues, with Emily acting as a muse for his eventual personal growth, but his selfishness and willingness to lie — even when it leaves her feeling terrible — is never fully dealt with through consequence.
The film does give Jamie a somewhat empathetic reason for not informing his family about his breakup, forcing Emily into what is clearly a painful situation. The problem is Jamie gets everything he wants — including the space to work through his issues — even when it directly hurts Emily in the process.
He isn’t a bad guy, he just festers in his own self-depreciation for far too long. Despite the movie not always making him pay for his faults, it’s refreshing to watch a Christmas movie allow its characters to have any at all.
If any tropes are missed due to Hallmark’s rigid rules and regulations, it’s the always entertaining “two people, one-bed” trope.
Considering the films “lovers to enemies to lovers” premise, it’s a missed opportunity that never becomes an issue because, at Hallmark Channel, grown adults sleep in separate beds if they aren’t married — even in their 30’s.
Hallmark may still shy away from all things pre-marital sex, but An Unexpected Christmas does have something else impressive — a gay female character.
As the sister and confidant to Jamie, Becca may be secondary cast, but she’s there, and the channel finally admits there are not only gay people in the world — but some of them are women. Divorced women, even, who have children and bear no resemblance to harmful queer stereotypes.
It’s not perfect, but it’s definitely something.
If there’s a shining star out of the already lovely ensemble, it’s Lenz, who gives all the comedic chops she has to the role. It pays off in spades; she’s beautiful, funny, sarcastic — and a little glibber than we’re used to seeing her.
She’s the major reason for the majority of An Unexpected Christmas’ laugh-out-loud moments (there is one scene involving a glass of water and sleeping pills that is especially delightful), and the personal spin she brings to Emily is what truly brings the character to life.
The story of An Unexpected Christmas is a good one, but with Benz at her best like this, I’d be paying attention, regardless.
An Unexpected Christmas is an illustration of how Hallmark is breaking away from its usual Christmas prototype. It’s casting actors who bring the stories alive, writing scripts with nuance and humor, and diversifying its typical pool of characters.
The channel seems ready and willing to admit there are many different ways to fall in love, and endless definitions of the meaning of family.
An Unexpected Christmas is proof of the magic that comes from those realizations.
What did you think of An Unexpected Christmas? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
An Unexpected Christmas is airing on The Hallmark Channel now.
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