Movie Review: This Christmas
By Matthew Huntley
January 10, 2008
There's a special scene at the end of This Christmas that I'd like to share with you. In it, members of the cast form two lines and each dances down the center, showing off his or her own unique rhythms and moves. The cast has broken character and with such high spirits in the air, we see how much fun everyone had making this movie.
Now I'm not saying that just because the cast has fun making a movie means the movie is good (I'm sure Will Smith and Martin Lawrence had a blast making Bad Boys II), but in this case the cast's enjoyment translates to our own. The movie has such an enormous affection for its people that we feel the same way. In a time when Hollywood like to chastise the family unit by showing it crumble, this one celebrates it.
As is typical of Christmas-themed movies, this one likes to illustrate the dysfunctional season with the usual crazy family members, the tight schedules, the secrets, and the pain. But This Christmas works overall because the key players are well developed and we feel we really get to know them.
The story centers on the Whitfields, a close-knit African American family from Los Angeles. The matriarch is a proud and loving woman known to her kids as Ma'Dere (Loretta Devine). She lives with her boyfriend, Joe Brown (Delroy Lindo), who is a deacon but who for some reason thinks it's okay to live and sleep with his girlfriend. Ma'Dere's first husband left her to pursue a music career and she doesn't think her kids suspect Joe lives with her, not when she packs his belongings up every Christmas and moves them out to the garage.
The eldest son, Quentin (Idris Alba), followed in his father's footsteps and hasn't been home for four years. He's on the run from two jokers to whom he owes a debt, and figures home will be the safest hiding place. The other kids are all respectable and good-looking, each with their own issues that need resolving. Lisa (Regina King) is a stay-at-home mother of two; though her younger sister Kelli (Sharon Leal) would say three when you count Lisa's husband Malcolm (Laz Alonso), who needs his food heated and cut up for him.
Melanie (Lauren London) is the youngest daughter and can't seem to find a suitable college major without the help of her latest boyfriend, the current of whom is a responsible young man named Deavan (Keith Robinson). Claude (Columbus Short), the middle child, makes his way home from the army but has a secret he's keeping from the rest of the family, as does the youngest boy Michael, or Baby (Chris Brown), who can sing his heart out but who's scared to tell his mother because of her history with musicians.
With so many characters, you'd think writer-director Preston A. Whitmore II would have a hard time finding the right narrative balance so each character gets his and her fair amount of screen time, but Whitmore pulls it off nicely through graceful editing, strong emotion and gentle humor.
There are some things we don't care about, like the subplot about Quentin fleeing Chicago, but Whitmore knows well enough not to pay too much attention to it. What we do care about is the family's relationships and simply watching them interact with one another. The actors all seem like they're actually related and make us believe they have a history, which gets us thinking about our own families.
Regina King gives the movie's best performance because her character is given the heaviest struggles. There's one scene when she contemplates doing something drastic about her husband's behavior and the look on her face raises her character to another level. King has always been a fine actress (see Jerry Maguire and Ray), but one of these days she's going to break out completely, maybe even win an Oscar.
One thing I'd like to mention is how the filmmakers and cast take pride in the characters as African Americans, and by sidestepping black stereotypes. They don't feel the need to remind us the characters are black but instead celebrate their culture naturally. This Christmas gave me the opportunity to see black people as people and not necessarily as Hollywood archetypes and caricatures.
I saw a real love shared between the filmmakers and cast that few Hollywood movies allow for out of fear they might scare off other audiences. But Hollywood should know audiences respond to movies that respect the people in them. I walked away from This Christmas believing many black families may act something like the Whitfields. Not since Soul Food have I seen an African American family portrayed in such a strong and appealing light.
There are also some fresh storytelling moments, including the reaction of the family to Claude's behavior with a gun. Whitmore shows there's consequences to such actions and, later on, when Claude's secret is revealed to the rest of the family, it was refreshing to see everybody accept it instead of react in a dumbed down sitcomish way.
A lot happens in This Christmas, and not in terms of plot, but in terms of people. We see these characters behave, grow, love and learn, and they're so well drawn that we enjoy and are interested in watching their lives progress. Here is a movie that makes you feel like a member of the family, and with the amount of love and adventure shared between its members, that's a pretty good thing.