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'EXmas' (2023)

Holiday hijinks ensue when a recently separated couple are both accidently invited to same holiday celebration.

Although EXmas (2023) may seem like a typical holiday romantic comedy film, it brings a breath of fresh Midwestern air to the holiday canon by delving into family dynamics and relationships. In a genre historically saturated with cis-heteronormative holiday films, EXmas takes a slight deviation from tradition, introducing characters that contribute to diversity in both representation and storylines. It’s essential to recognize, however, that the film primarily revolves around a white cis heterosexual (former) couple. Despite this central focus, director Jonah Feingold enriches the narrative by incorporating various secondary and tertiary characters with diverse racial and sexual backgrounds.

The film centers on the recently separated Ali Moyer (Leighton Meester) and Graham Stroop, (Robbie Amell) and their relationship with Graham’s family. While this is the primary story, the audience is also introduced to Graham’s sister, Mindy Stroop (Veronika Slowikowska). We first see her in a discussion with her mother, Jeannie (Kathryn Greenwood), about why her partner is unable to join them this year. This subplot helps to establish the Stroop family as a loving, accepting, and warm family overall.

Following this conversation, Graham unexpectedly appears, surprising his mom and sister and expressing his desire to spend Christmas with them. However, there’s a subtle indication that he may be doing so to avoid being alone during the holidays. Regardless, both Jeannie and Mindy react with absolute shock and panic, as they had invited Ali to join them, unaware that Graham would be joining them after declining previously. A noticeable awkwardness ensues among the three, with Graham expressing surprise at the lack of excitement surrounding his arrival. This seems to snap them into a crisis management mode, as they quickly shuffle him into another room hoping to avoid any interaction between Ali and Graham, but they are unsuccessful, as the two immediately discover each other.

As it happens, shortly after their breakup, Ali and the Stroops resumed communication. Jeannie acknowledges that given Ali’s long-standing connection to the family, their familial-like relationship should not be dismissed. Following this, Graham decides to leave, expressing his intention to find other accommodations. Outside, he is joined by Mindy, who balances the role of a younger sister while also serving as a somewhat anticipated secondary (queer) character. In this capacity, she is there to engage in conversations, offer advice, and contribute to the growth and development of a main character.

This conversation sparks Graham’s plan to have his parents “dump Ali before Christmas,” using a series of mischievous actions that unfold during her time with the Stroops. Graham feigns acceptance of Ali’s presence for Christmas, and the Stroop’s youngest son, Elliott Stroop (Steven Huy), joins the family shortly after. Although never explicitly discussed, it can be inferred that Elliott might be adopted, given that he is not white and is assumed to be of Vietnamese descent. Despite this assumption, Graham realizes once again that Ali has been in contact with his family for a significant period when Elliott expresses gratitude to her for assistance with one of his classes.

On the first night, a family game night takes a tumultuous turn as Graham executes his long game plan to distance his family from Ali. Right after his initial move to tarnish her image, Ali confronts Graham, and they decide to make a bet regarding her ability to last until Christmas. The wager determines who ultimately retains the right to spend future holidays with Graham’s family.

As anticipated, numerous situations arise where the two are compelled to spend time together, both alone and in the company of the Stroop family and occasional friends. Following one of the Stroop family festivities, Ali joins Graham and his siblings at a bar, accompanied by two characters introduced earlier that day – Brady (Thomas Cadrot) and Jess (Donna Benedito). These two characters serve as pawns in Ali and Graham’s game to incite jealousy. Although Brady and Jess remain present for a considerable amount of time after the bar outing, they gradually fade from any significant plot progression once Ali and Graham begin to realize that the end of their relationship may not be as final as they initially thought.

After a heart-to-heart conversation between Graham and his mom about what truly matters – drawing a parallel to her own bumpy start with her now-husband – it becomes clear that the crucial factor is whether there is still love between the two individuals. Ali overhears this conversation, having woken up next to Graham from the previous night. As is customary in romantic comedies, this revelation provides them with a new perspective and prompts them to contemplate what may come next in their relationship.

As the film enters its final act, a pivotal conversation resonates with both Graham and Ali. An unexpected situation arises, compelling Graham to reevaluate his thoughts on whether he wants to include Ali in his life and that of the Stroops moving forward. Prompted by the earlier conversation and the realization that Ali’s presence stems from genuine care for the Stroop family, Graham finally acknowledges that family and Ali should have taken precedence over his dissatisfaction with his job.

On Christmas Eve, they declare a truce, planning to go their separate ways after Ali departs on Christmas morning. However, a change of heart strikes Graham as Ali leaves the Stroop home. He’s overcome by a classic holiday movie notion: the need to reach the airport before her departure and see if they can give their relationship another chance. In a comedic series of events attempting (and failing) to chase after her, Ali ends up at their front door. Graham delivers a heartfelt monologue expressing his desire to give their relationship a second chance.

The film then transitions to “One Year Later,” revealing that the two indeed reconciled and got engaged. As Ali welcomes the Stroop family for Christmas festivities, Mindy introduces her new partner, providing a glimpse into the characters’ evolving lives. The final scene, set “Two Years Later,” intriguingly sets the stage for a potential sequel. Graham invites Mindy’s ex-partner to their home for Christmas, a playful retaliation for events that transpired two years prior.

In the grand scheme, although Mindy played a secondary role for plot development, it is crucial to note the evident potential for a sequel. While information about a sequel’s existence is currently unavailable, the family dynamic within the Stroops creates room for a comparable plot to unfold. Importantly, it deviates from the common narrative tropes where LGBTQ+ characters often grapple with unaccepting families, the process of coming out, or the need to navigate relationships discreetly for the sake of appearing heteronormative.