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Hallmark Review: 'Christmas by Starlight'

by Trevor Wells 2 years ago in movie
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A budding Hallmark dream team make their writing debut with this solid Christmas romance about a work agreement that sparks a surprising bond.

It's fitting that lawyer Annie Park (Kimberley Sustad) specializes in family law, as family has always been something she'd held dear to her heart. After being adopted by her loving parents Gene and Pat (Bruce Dawson and Rebecca Staab), Annie has come to treasure them and the holiday traditions they've formed over the years. So when she learns that their beloved Starlight Café is at risk of being torn down to make room for new development, Annie decides to confront the company responsible: Holt Enterprises.

Once she arrives, however, she runs into William Holt (Paul Campbell), the irresponsible son of company owner Jim Holt (Malcolm Stewart). Having been told by his father to hire legal counsel to shadow him and prevent any future mistakes on his part, Will makes Annie a proposition. In exchange for posing as his lawyer until Christmas, he'll keep Starlight Café from being demolished. Desperate, Annie begrudgingly agrees, though she and Will's differing personalities quickly lead to friction between them. But as the week goes on, Annie and Will slowly open up to each other--and what started out as a simple business arrangement might just turn into something more.

With Christmas by Starlight, I'd say we can now christen Kimberley Sustad and Paul Campbell as an official Hallmark Dream Team. After starring together in two Hallmark features, the duo has now taken a big leap and made their joint debut as screenwriters with their latest feature. Ironically enough, I'd place Christmas by Starlight right in between Campbell and Sustad's previous works in terms of quality. While it doesn't end up outdoing warm summer treat Wedding Every Weekend, Christmas by Starlight brings enough heartfelt charm and witty comedy to give it an edge over A Godwink Christmas.

Starting with the positives, Sustad and Campbell are as excellent performance-wise as they were in Wedding Every Weekend. Like Wedding Every Weekend, Christmas by Starlight has a comedic element to it--one which Sustad and Campbell are well-equipped for. In addition to their hilarious moments of bantering, both actors play around well with the admittedly strange situation Annie and Will find themselves in. Campbell in particular deserves a shout-out for his sense of comedic timing throughout Christmas by Starlight. It's impressive how much humor Campbell can convey through a simple expression or head tilt. It gives Christmas by Starlight's first half a fun and lighthearted vibe before the film's drama enters the equation.

As for Annie and Will's budding relationship, Sustad and Campbell continue to give stellar performances as their characters go from wary allies to legitimate friends. While their relationship is initially strictly business and thus takes a while to begin turning into anything more, the time Annie and Will spend together allows them to open up to each other and wear their hearts on their sleeves. Like their past films, Sustad and Campbell excel at connecting emotionally to their characters , with the former particularly throwing herself into Annie's somber moments. Her past left Annie with a lingering fear of losing everything she'd grown to love, and Sustad sells that insecurity with poignant energy. And while Will starts the story out a bit rough around the edges, Campbell brings sincerity to his efforts to earn Annie's trust and show he's not the selfish and irresponsible businessman she and his father think he is.

WARNING: Spoilers Below

However, Will's character development hits a minor snag in the form of Hallmark's most reviled trope: the Third-Act Misunderstanding. After having spent much of the movie growing out of his responsibility-dodging behavior and coming to see Annie as a confidante, it makes little sense for him to not explain to her how his father vetoed his plan to save Starlight. While it's understandable that he doesn't want to hurt her, you'd think he'd realize how much worse it would be for her to have to find out on her own. Still, it's less of an annoying contrivance than Third-Act Misunderstandings from other Hallmark movies (looking your way, Baby's First Christmas...) and leads to a heartfelt scene of Will apologizing to Annie and the Starlight staff for having been on the verge of letting them all down.

Another snag appears in Will's relationship with his father and Jim's characterization throughout Christmas by Starlight. Through Will's backstory, we're given the implication that Jim has always been a harsh and hard-to-please father--something we can physically see through their present-day interactions. Malcolm Stewart does well playing the polar opposite of the father he played in Wedding Every Weekend, and his treatment of Will could've been a smooth fit into Will's character arc of growing up and taking charge of his career. But after a fierce scene of Will standing up to his father, Jim makes a sudden 180 and is completely supportive of saving Starlight and handing the company over to Will. With Jim's implied history of being distant and unsupportive of his son, this 0 to 100 redemption arc is lacking in sincere warmth.

(Plus, there were moments in the film when it seemed to be suggested that Will didn't really want to take over the family business, only for this potential plot development to be abruptly dropped)

Spoilers Over

Christmas by Starlight's most consistent problem, however, lies in the script. Much of the story moves with the focus of a ping-pong ball, bouncing Annie, Will, and the audience from one activity (business-related or otherwise) to another. About 60% of the time, this allows for interesting character moments and story beats to emerge. The other 40% is less effective and causes the action to slip into stagnant waters. But thanks to its chemistry-packed leads and a strong supporting cast, Christmas by Starlight avoids sinking too deep into these slow stretches. Speaking of, after appearing in the Ion Television disaster known as Runaway Christmas Bride, it's great to see Bruce Dawson in a much better written role as Annie's supportive father Gene. Dawson plays Gene with endearing fatherly warmth, allowing him to shine in his memorably heartwarming scene with Sustad towards the end. While she doesn't get nearly as much screentime as Dawson, Rebecca Staab brings a similar warmth and lovability to mother/wife Pat Park.

Christmas by Starlight also has a few fun side characters to add to its roster. Ted Starmer (and to a lesser extent, his wife Gigi) are made immensely memorable thanks to all the adorable energy Curtis Moore and Adriana O'Neil bring to them. Darren Martens' Lyle stands out the most among the supporting cast, as Martens plays Will's pseud0-assistant with loads of charm. Jeff Reyes makes his Hallmark debut as Lyle's husband Michael, and while his delivery during Michael's biggest moment was notably stilted, Reyes certainly has the quirky charisma to keep up with Martens and show improvement potential if he becomes a frequent Hallmark player.

Pacing is the arena where Christmas by Starlight stumbles most, as there are some moments when the fun dies down and things risk getting boring. But these moments are made up for by a stellar cast, wonderful comedic elements, and leads with all the chemistry needed to sell their business-alliance-turned-romance. While it doesn't shine brighter than Sustad and Campbell's last project, Christmas by Starlight definitely has that "Good Hallmark Movie" glow that makes me eager to see what's next for these two.

Score: 6.5 out of 10 giant plastic elephants.

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About the author

Trevor Wells

Aspiring writer and film blogger: Lifetime, Hallmark, indie, and anything else that strikes my interest. He/him.

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Twitter: @TrevorWells98

Instagram: @trevorwells_16

Email: [email protected]

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