Netflix’s The Christmas Diary brings Richard Paul Evans’ 2017 holiday story to life, with Justin Hartley (This Is Us) and Barrett Doss (Station 19) in the lead roles. These have lots of issues to unpack as well as bond over — and two knowing how these movies go, they’ll probably find love along the way. Be The Christmas Diary worth putting at the top of your Christmas list? Or should you keep The Christmas Diary locked in a Christmas box?
The Gist: Justin Hartley plays Jake Turner, a best-selling novelist who is unusually handsome, as is commented on numerous times throughout the film because the guy is played by Justin Hartley. When Jake learns that he’s suddenly become the executor of his estranged, late mother’s estate, he’s forced to return to his hometown, settle his affairs, and reconcile his own issues (if he can).
He’s not the only person hanging around his mom’s house, though. A mystery woman, Rachel Campbell (Barrett Doss), shows up saying that her adoption papers led her to this address — and that her mother worked in that house as a nanny. From there, Jake and Rachel set out to get information from the one person alive who might have a clue about this mystery nanny: Jake’s even more estranged — but also more alive — dad (James Remar). How will Jake handle seeing the man who abandoned him decades ago? And will Rachel ever find her mother?
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Picture the movie version of the darkly sentimental holiday song/wraith The Christmas Shoes — which apparently was turned into a movie starring Rob Lowe by CBS in 2002. Or maybe this is A Family Stone For Two.
Performance Worth Watching: James Remar — who I remember from the modern Miracle on 34th Street — does a real great job humanizing a dad who abandoned his wife and kid after a horrible tragedy. There’s a sensitivity to his performance that doesn’t feel forced or like a cover for an impending disappointment. This is a movie filled with sad twists, so getting a sincere performance from Remar feels like a respite.
Memorable Dialog: Jake to his neighbor Ellie (a warmly idiosyncratic performance from Bonnie Bedelia) about the task at hand: “What was it that Robert Frost always said? He said, ‘The best way out is always through,’ right? Although I’m pretty sure he never met a hoarder.”
A Holiday Tradition: One of the towns that Jake and Rachel drive through on their road trip happens to have a Christmas pageant that includes a screening of It’s a Wonderful Life.
Two Turtle Doves: If a marathon of holiday movies about kids reuniting with their estranged parents doesn’t sound like a complete bummer to you, you can watch The Christmas Diary followed by Kirk Franklin’s The Night Before Christmas —about an estranged mother and daughter — when it premieres on Lifetime on December 10.
Does the Title Make Any Sense?: The film is about Rachel discovering her birth mother’s diary, and her mom’s name was Noel… so, yes.
Our Take: There is totally a place for holiday romcoms that skip the com part completely — maybe they’re holiday rom-drams. The holidays are all about feeling things in general, be those emotions joy or sorrow, or nostalgia in all of its pleasureful and painful forms. The Christmas Diary too hits all the emotions. There are some chuckles here and there, as well as some lighthearted moments between Jake and his neighbor Ellie. There are also a few big, cathartic moments that aim to make you reach for the tissues just like an episode of This Is Us. If you thought The Christmas Diary could last its 100-minute runtime without giving us Justin Hartley making life-changing decisions in the rain, think again.
The primary selling point of The Christmas Diary, though, has to be Hartley and Doss’ relationship. They do a solid job of playing people who go from strangers to emotionally intimate road trip partners in a matter of minutes. You know they’re eventually going to hook up (how could they not?), so the wrinkle that Rachel is engaged makes the movie instantly more outrageous than any Hallmark outing.
There is a point where The Christmas Diary tips over into drama drama territory, and that shift could undermine how you feel about the movie’s central romance. That’s when you really have to ask yourself what you want out of not only your holiday movies, but your Hartley movies. If you turn this on expecting to see a charming romance between Justin Hartley and Barrett Doss, you should adjust your expectations. If you like being dazzled by a movie’s festive lights and then getting a carol stuck in your head for the evening, this isn’t that kind of movie. If you want a patient road trip movie about facing past traumas and some light infidelity — this is more that vibe.
Our Call: SKIP IT. This Is Us fans may want to see Justin Hartley sweater at their heartstrings for Christmas, but The Christmas Diary might be pulling too hard.