There are way more Christmas movies made each year than you would ever guess. Only the highest profile make their way into cinemas; that is, in years when cinemas are a place movie patrons will actually consider going. But, hiding under the surface of mainstream approbation, the streaming services are lousy with them. They tend to feature a minor star from a TV show that was on in the 1990s, and almost all have the word “Christmas” in the title. The vast majority also function as a comfort food confirmation of the traditional, quaint, heteronormative Christmas you might find in a greeting card or on a home improvement show.
But not all. A New York Christmas Wedding, on title alone, would seem to tick all the boxes for just another sweet Christmas pudding in cinematic form. Bring on Lacey Chabert and some Santa hats and some mistletoe and be prepared to have it on in the background while you’re doing something else. Otoja Abit’s film does actually appear on a streaming service (Netflix), and it does actually feature the star of a 1990s TV show in a smaller role – that’s Chris Noth, the erstwhile Mr. Big on Sex and the City. But the comparisons to others of its apparent ilk end there.
There’s a lot going on in that title, but the thing you wouldn’t expect is a tender LGBTQ+ romance. It’s a delightful bait-and-switch. A New York Christmas Wedding is essentially It’s a Wonderful Life if the main character were planning to throw herself into a Christmas Eve wedding rather than off a bridge. An actual guardian angel is present to show her what her life could have been if she hadn’t overreacted to a youthful betrayal by her first love 20 years earlier. And her first love just so happens to have been her best friend, a woman – or at the time, just a confused teenage girl.
Jennifer Ortiz (Nia Fairweather) has just been ambushed by her fiancée David (Abit, the director). At a fancy dinner with his parents – specifically, his domineering mother (Tyra Ferrell) – Jennifer learns that her future in-laws having booked a venue for their wedding on Christmas Eve, and that Jennifer has a meeting with Vera Wang to choose a dress. What might be anyone else’s fantasy causes Jennifer to start hyperventilating.
On a jog to clear her head, she sees a bicyclist hit by a car and thrown to the ground. Azrael (Cooper Koch) is fine, but Jennifer insists that she walk a ways with him down the street to ensure he’s not concussed. They part ways never expecting to see each other again – or, at least, Jennifer not expecting to see Azrael. But when she awakens the next morning in a bed that isn’t hers, next to a woman who is not her fiancée but looks vaguely familiar, Azrael appears while she’s walking a dog that is not hers, and explains what’s going on. This is Jennifer’s chance at a do over.
This all has the makings of a rather standard holiday fantasy, but the package is wrapped completely differently. The first tip-off that we’re getting something unexpected is that Azrael is clearly coded as gay. He’s a bit cheeky too; you could see him referring to himself as a fairy godmother. The story also does not get stuck on a bunch of “This is not my beautiful house! This is not my beautiful wife!” moments. It dutifully acknowledges them for about five minutes, then gets on with telling the story.
And Abit’s story is an earnest one. This is not a heteronormative holiday movie that just happens to be about lesbians (or, more appropriately, bisexuals). It’s an actual strident call for equality among people of different sexual orientations. Noth, who is also a producer on the film, comes into play as a Catholic priest at the church attended by Gabrielle (Adriana deMeo) and Jennifer. One of the “How did I get here?” moments involves Jennifer arriving to a meeting with Gabrielle, who leads the church choir, and Father Kelly. Jennifer’s as surprised as we are when she hears Gabrielle launch into an impassioned plea about how it’s not enough for the church to provide vague and general support to their union. She argues that the church should actually be willing to marry them, as even the Pope has come out disavowing homosexuality as a sin.
Not the movie you were expecting, eh? But it does have the holiday warmth you would expect. This is a tirelessly humanist film, where characters are a bit kinder than they need to be, and narrative developments land in that sweet spot between optimism and realism. That could also be a recipe for something naïve and simplistic, but not in Abit’s hands. Even, for example, when one character makes a big gesture toward the acceptance Jennifer and Gabrielle are seeking, Abit shows us the dissenters from that choice. The writer-director understands that we still have a long way to go, but that good people are helping bridge that gap. Chills are a regular accompaniment to this film, just because Abit repeatedly nails the tone and the execution.
The one thing A New York Christmas Wedding does have in common with other quickie holiday movies, though, is that execution. This is not to say Abit is lacking as a filmmaker, and in fact, proves quite the opposite on a number of occasions. But the film does not really look polished, and it has moments sprinkled throughout where an edit is not quite right, a reaction not quite landed. You know you are watching something that never had a chance to debut on the big screen.
Does that matter? Hardly. We are lucky we have A New York Christmas Story to stumble across on Netflix during a holiday season when Netflix is guiding our viewing habits more than ever before. And with reviews like this one, maybe some people will seek it out, rather than just stumbling upon it.