Fair warning: I am not a Lifetime movie buff, so this is very much the review of an outsider.
The exciting thing about Christmas Ever After is not the plot (which is sparse) or the pacing (which is somewhere between leisurely and lethargic). No, the exciting thing is that one of the romantic leads is disabled and is played by a disabled actress. The number of times this happens in a mainstream movie or show is just staggeringly and depressingly low. And the very best part is that her character is neither tragic nor inspirational. She’s just a wheelchair-using romance writer who has hit a wall with the end of her most recent novel because she has idealized her male protagonist into a corner. And look, I have to make all the usual disclaimers about one movie featuring a marginalized and extremely diverse group not being able to represent everyone. Especially since this is a movie about a disabled cisgendered, heterosexual, conventionally attractive white woman. Even that sentence is bound to stir debate—because should I refer to her as a disabled woman? Or a woman with disabilities?—but to address that would be a different essay altogether. (Ha! Did I just refer to this review as an “essay”? How amusing of me.) The point is that representation and inclusion matter, which makes this otherwise run-of-the-mill Christmas rom-com pretty damn revolutionary.
Izzi Simmons (Ali Stroker) is a popular romance novelist with a looming deadline. When her editor (Kim Nelson) asks if she’s close to being finished, Izzi responds that she’s “close-adjacent,” a response for which I have a lot of respect. When Izzi does finally turn in her draft, her editor isn’t thrilled with what she’s written. Her male protagonist, Desmond Reigns, has become too perfect and too idealized. Her editor explains that “maybe being a romance novelist who is too picky to ever go on a second date is starting to become a problem.” (It never ceases to amuse me that, in movies like these, people like to turn the old “show don’t tell” adage on its head.) To which Izzi responds, “Well, what’s wrong with having high standards?” And OF COURSE her editor then points out that Izzi has “impossible standards.” What?!? A rom-com heroine with impossibly high dating standards! What are the odds?!? So good. One might say they’re impossibly low.
Because of her looming deadline, Izzi almost cancels her yearly Christmas stay at the Antler Lodge in Silver Springs where she is considered to be like family. But then the owner Bob (Bill Marchant) tells her this will be his last year running the place before he turns over the reins to his son Matt (Daniel di Tomasso), who has returned home with his young daughter (Melia Charlotte Cressaty). Then Izzi remembers that we live in the 21st century, and she can literally turn in her pages from anywhere with an internet connection, so she heads to Silver Springs, hoping for inspiration. On her way there, we the viewers get to see her drive with hand controls, and it is just super fucking exciting to see a movie that normalizes accommodations. There are other small moments like this. Like when Izzi says she’s going out for a push. Or when we see her advise Matt on his bowling technique, while pointing out she has her own kind of bowling form. Or when people pull up a chair to sit down to speak to her. I read that the actual film set also made real accommodations for the real actress, which shouldn’t be groundbreaking at all because every-fucking-one needs some kind of accommodation and it should be the expectation, not the exception, that their needs are met.
Silver Springs looks like it is straight out of Central Casting for a consciously racially diverse Winter Wonderland with Christmas Charm oozing out of every nook and cranny. When Izzi decides to stop for a hot chocolate, she nearly has a car accident because she sees a man who looks almost exactly like the cover art of Desmond Reigns. And I nearly injured myself trying to get a screenshot of him, because holy-Deoxyribonucleic acid does this man have a Genetically Blessed Face™. If you’re into highly attractive men, you should probably set aside some time after reading this review to do a little internet image search for his name. For science, of course. My friends, I fucking love science.
Anyway, where was I? You will be utterly shocked to learn that the man she nearly mows down also turns out to be Matt, the son who is taking over her favorite B&B. How could he possibly look so much like Desmond Reigns? I have faith you’ll be able to solve that mystery easily enough if you watch the movie because they will give you clear hints and then carefully explain it to you. (Tell don’t show! Tell don’t show.) Do I really like typing Desmond Reigns? I do. You will also be astounded to learn that Matt is somewhat Emotionally Unavailable and Stoic and has a hard time celebrating Christmas since his wife died a few years ago. You will be further amazed to learn that he and Izzi don’t get off to the best start, even though they immediately find each other kinda hot. Aside from being entirely thrown by the fact that he looks just like the character she has spent years writing and idealizing, she is annoyed that he has changed the name from Antler Lodge to Antler Chalet. I mean, I have to side with Izzi on this one because Antler Chalet just sounds dumb, while Antler Lodge sounds cozy. And she’s further irked that he has fixed the squeaky boards in the room where she always stays. This one is trickier because you know there are people who insist they want a quaint country getaway and then are irate about the fact that the floorboards make noise and insist that it’s a sign that the building should be condemned. (This concludes my opinions on B&B marketing and repair.) Anyway, the point is that there is much argumentative banter between them.
Izzi (of course) does hit it off with Matt’s daughter, who is an aspiring writer, and it’s entirely endearing to watch Izzi encourage her to keep writing. In fact, everyone except Matt is extremely and openly taken with Izzi, which isn’t surprising because, like any good writer, she’s always willing to abandon her computer in order to lend a hand with everything from singing Christmas carols, to setting up for a cookie decorating party, to finding the perfect lights to decorate the inn. While Izzi is a very sweet character I found her slightly cloying in the beginning. And, aside from the pacing, that’s probably my biggest complaint about this style of movie: Everyone is just so fucking nice. It’s a weird complaint, but a little bit of grit isn’t a terrible quality in a person. That said, she grew on me, especially when, after helping out with something, she offers that “if you wanna put up a life-size statue of me in front of Town Hall, I’ll allow it.” I like a woman with some good one-liners in her pocket. Plus, Ali Stroker is just a very appealing person to watch on screen. However, I did not have many issues with Izzi’s wardrobe, which is made up of some very fantastic coats and only a couple of shirts I could have done without.
Friends, you know what’s going to happen in this movie… Are there bingo cards for watching this kind of movie? Because you could win big with this one! There is Izzi’s looming deadline, which she only meets because Matt provides her with the needed inspiration. There is a scene where Matt and Izzi are accidentally locked in a room together, and they share intimate details of their lives. There is Matt’s precocious daughter who helps propel Matt and Izzi toward a romantic relationship. There is Izzi’s editor/best friend (who is also a Black woman who doesn’t have her own storyline, so there is that trope we could do without) who pushes her to let down her guard. There’s an inopportune injury that forces Izzi and Matt to work together. There is a holiday decorating montage that may or may not save Christmas in some way. There is a romantic rival for Matt’s affections. And there is, all praise to the gods and goddesses of rom-coms, a completely unnecessary scene of Matt shirtless. Hallelujah!
Obviously, Silver Springs is a completely idealized place of magical wonder and truckloads of fake snow. It is also an idealized world of wheelchair accessibility. And so, I wondered if this was giving people a false idea that physical accessibility is easy, which it’s not. On the other hand, this is a dreamworld, so why not include the dream that an entire town has made itself wheelchair accessible? Why not show lower counters, stores without stairs, safe sidewalks? Why not show people sitting down to talk to Izzi or show her love interest offering his hand to help pull her over a bump? Why not show a place where no one asks intrusive questions or asks if she’s tried yoga or doubts her disability? Why not show the world what’s possible if we try to adapt to disabled people’s needs instead of expecting them to adapt to a world not designed with them in mind? And I would sure as shit hope that if Izzi had been going to one inn and one town for years and years that they would have taken the time to make it accessible to her. It’s the least they could do, for fuck’s sake.
It sounds strange to say, but part of the beauty of this movie is that Izzi’s character could easily have been a non-disabled person. This isn’t the story of a disability and how it elevates or limits the character. This is just the frothy, romantic story of a woman and a man falling in love at Christmas.
Oh, oh wait! Before I go, I have to tell you that, as part of their COVID precautions, Ali Stroker and Daniel di Tomasso performed their kissing scenes with a piece of plexiglass between them. I fully admire the dedication to keeping everyone safe, but it does explain why the kissing scenes look a little bit like they’re between two aliens who are trying to act out the human custom of mouth-kissing.