As much a tradition as indigestible fruitcake and the dogs barking “Jingle Bells,” every Christmas season brings us at least one new family holiday angst-fest, stuffed with secrets, accusations, forgiveness, food, and laughter. The best of them give us the dual pleasures of identification with the frustrations deep connections of family life and a little distance, too.
This version adheres just enough to the usual traditions to satisfy, with most of its appeal in its top-notch ensemble performances and the freshness of its setting in the home of a middle-class black family. Loretta Devine plays the mother, known to her family as “Ma Dear.” Only her youngest child is still living at home (pop star Chris Brown as Michael, known to his siblings as “Baby”). Coming back for Christmas are the rest of the siblings, each with some secret to hide or spring on the family — or both. College student Melanie (Lauren London) has a new boyfriend (Keith Robinson as Devean). Successful model Kelli (Sharon Leal) is not as confident as she would like everyone to think. Married Lisa (Regina King) is not as happy as she would like everyone to think. Marine Claude (Columbus Short) is not as single as everyone thinks. And oldest brother Quentin (Idris Elba) owes money to some people who are not exactly on Santa’s “nice” list. Even Mom has a secret. She does not want her children to know that she has been living with Joseph (Delroy Lindo).
The movie nicely captures the rhythm and volatility of adult sibling interactions, a mash-up of in-jokes, old and new and often-shifting alliances, the need for acceptance and approval, and affectionate teasing that sometimes flares up to reveal or aggravate old wounds. Director Preston A. Whitmore has a sure hand in balancing half a dozen different storylines and multiple switches of tone from light-hearted romance to lacerating confrontations and gritty drama. The plots may be predicable but the individual cast members are all superb and completely believable as family, the whole greater than the sum of the parts. Brown has a nice screen presence and delivers an outstanding rendition of “Try a Little Tenderness” as well as the title tune. The delightful closing credit sequence is one of the movie’s highlights, for its own pleasures and also for what it reveals about the strength of the cast’s connection. This movie is a pure holiday pleasure that is likely to become a standard for watching while trimming the tree for many years to come.
Parents should know that the film includes some explicit sexual references and non-explicit situations, some strong language, and some violence, including guns. A wife takes a belt to her straying husband (no injuries, more to scare and humiliate than to harm him) and this is portrayed as justifiable and quasi-comic. There is some strong language and there are some tense family situations. A strength of the movie is the loving acceptance of an inter-racial relationship.
Topics for discussion: The members of this large and loving family have a hard time telling each other the truth sometimes. What is each member who keeps a secret afraid of? What is likely to be different next year?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy What’s Cooking? from the director of Bend It Like Beckham and “The Gathering” with Ed Asner and Maureen Stapleton.