The Christmas Heart

A family affair both on- and offscreen, "The Christmas Heart" overly pushes faith and the power of prayer, which would be more interesting, frankly, if that portion of the movie were expanded, and the hackneyed devices dialed down to, oh, an 8 on a 1-to-10 scale.

Ann Norman - Teri Polo
Mike Norman - Paul Essiembre
Matt Norman - Ty Wood
Tommy Norman - Cruise Brown
Elizabeth - Tess Harper

A family affair both on- and offscreen, “The Christmas Heart” overly pushes faith and the power of prayer, which would be more interesting, frankly, if that portion of the movie were expanded, and the hackneyed devices dialed down to, oh, an 8 on a 1-to-10 scale. As is, this Patricia Heaton-produced holiday pic — written by her brother, Michael — is sort of fun, if only to feel smug anticipating every plot beat several minutes before it happens, and to listen for all the conspicuously-Canadian accents popping up in Cleveland and Detroit.

Normally, the whole shot-in-Manitoba thing wouldn’t be an issue, but beyond star Teri Polo and a cameo by Tess Harper, the voices here have such a clear Great White Northern rhythm as to be periodically distracting. Or maybe that’s picking nits, eh?

As for the plot, perhaps you’ve heard a close variant of this one before: A 15-year-old Cleveland boy suffers heart failure just before Christmas, leaving his understandably stricken mother (Polo) and dad (Paul Essiembre) clinging to the hope of a transplant, with only days to spare. A parallel story involves a young man in Detroit who’s gotten involved with an unsavory element, which will eventually leave his mother (Harper) with a painful choice about using his loss to save another.

Given the title, there’s something slightly morbid about the prolonged nature of the secondary plot. The movie has a chance to become engaging when the mom and dad discuss her faith vs. his lack of belief — glancing on how religion informs dealing with crises — but alas, pretty quickly abandons that thread, as director Gary Yates races to erect new hurdles during the busy last couple of acts.

Even within the formulaic confines of Hallmark’s brand, the dialogue doesn’t have to be quite this on the nose, and the performances are, to put it charitably, uneven. While the channel’s feel-good strategy is crystal clear, it’s hard not to wish the company would order fewer holiday movies, and invest them with more effort and imagination, as opposed to its big-box-store approach.

Among the stock characters, there’s a crotchety neighbor, Bob (Blake Taylor), whose own faith has also been tested and shaken. When the residents rally behind the family in its moment of need, he asks tartly, “What if this little story doesn’t have a nice, happy ending?”

Rest easy, Bob. With something like “The Christmas Heart,” the comfort is knowing you can see every beat telegraphed as if it were Rudolph’s nose on Christmas eve.

The Christmas Heart

Movie; Hallmark Channel, Sun. Dec. 2, 8 p.m.

Production: Filmed in Manitoba by Xmas Heart Films in association with Julijette and FourBoys Entertainment. Executive producers, Patricia Heaton, David Hunt, A.J. Morewitz, Norman Denver, Dale Cornick; producer, Juliette Hagopian; director, Gary Yates; writer, Michael Heaton.

Crew: Camera, Michael Marshall; production designer, Gord Wilding; editor, Brad Caslor; music, Shawn Pierce; casting, Jim Heber. 120 MIN.

Cast: Ann Norman - Teri Polo
Mike Norman - Paul Essiembre
Matt Norman - Ty Wood
Tommy Norman - Cruise Brown
Elizabeth - Tess HarperWith: John B. Lowe, Susan Kelso, Blake Taylor.

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