Leave no heartstring untugged” seems to be the maxim of “Christmas in Canaan,” an original movie for Hallmark Channel starring Billy Ray Cyrus and based on the book by Kenny Rogers and Donald Davenport. In the grand tradition of an epic country song, “Canaan” pulls out all the stops, including endless drama — not the least of which is a wounded puppy. Still, there is just enough well-meaning intent between the cliches to qualify as a feel-good holiday diversion.Sporting a rare, cropped ‘do, Cyrus (displaying better acting chops than his work on “Hannah Montana” would have viewers believe) stars as widower Daniel Burton, struggling to raise his family and keep his farm afloat in 1960s Texas.
Evoking the humble, but happy spirit of the Walton family, Burton and his three kids maintain a delicate harmony. When 10-year-old DJ (Zak Ludwig) gets in a fight with fellow classmate Rodney (Jaishon Fisher), Daniel learns that DJ has burgeoning racist sentiments (Rodney is black). Daniel and Rodney’s grandmother Miss Eunice (Candus Churchill) hatch a plan to make the boys live and work together for a week in an effort to resolve their differences.
At first, it only seems to emphasize their contempt for one another, but when they find a wounded puppy in the woods, the two work as a team to nurse it back to health. Their time together eventually blossoms into a lifelong friendship.
The movie gains credibility as the action picks up a few years later when the boys are teens. The Civil Rights movement is in full swing, but is met with stiff resistance in the rural Texas town. Daniel’s farm still hasn’t turned a good profit and money is tighter than ever. That doesn’t stop the family from taking Rodney in when Miss Eunice dies suddenly. Their Christmas together is short on presents, but big on hope and love. It’s this time together, and the Burtons’ unprecedented acts of kindness that spur Rodney to write a book about the experience.
No doubt the similarities to box office success “The Blind Side” make this film particularly timely, though the two are very different; the issues of race and class are mere subplots here and not fully explored.
Then again, the movie is really about family and creating meaningful relationships and experiences without material (and sometimes social) support. Director Neil Fearnley fashions a visually nostalgic backdrop, creating some genuinely touching moments from Davenport’s overwrought script. Although the first half of the film features the most clunky acting, there’s power in the scene when DJ races to the back of the school bus to discuss the wounded puppy’s progress with Rodney, much to the astonishment of his segregated classmates.
In addition to starring, Cyrus provides the original song “We’ll Get By Somehow (We Always Do),” which revisits basic plot points with a catchy country tune.