Judge Clark Douglas thinks this film has what every Christmas movie needs: racial tension and Billy Ray Cyrus.
There's no greater gift than friendship.
Not by any stretch of the imagination is Christmas in Canaan a very well-made movie, or even a very interesting one. Even so, it's friendly, mostly harmless and at least it's not another made-for-TV holiday movie about some Scrooge-esque figure who finally learns that Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year.
Our tale begins in 1964 in the relatively small town of Canaan, Texas. Young DJ (Zak Ludwig, Eureka) is on his way to school, and suddenly finds himself in the middle of an argument with an African-American boy named Rodney (Jaishon Fisher, Lakeview Terrace). The conflict concludes with punches being thrown and nasty words being said. Determined to resolve the conflict, DJ's father Daniel (Billy Ray Cyrus, Mulholland Drive) pays a visit to Rodney's grandmother Eunice (Candus Churchill, 2012). Rather than keeping the boys apart in the wake of their conflict, Daniel proposes that they be forced to spend time with each other. Eunice agrees, and after a while the boys become unlikely friends. As time passes, DJ (now played by Jacob Blair, The A-Team) and Rodney (now played by Matt Ward, Tooth Fairy) remain close. However, a variety of social changes and personal issues threaten to push them apart.
There's nothing wrong with the basic messages that Christmas in Canaan is pushing: racism is bad, friendship is good, and Christmas is about more than presents. It's just that these messages are presented in such a broadly simplistic, amateurish manner that the flick simply isn't worth the time of anyone who cares even remotely whether the films they watch are authentic and convincing. Still, if you're simply in need of a film that offers generic positive messages in a family-friendly manner, I suppose you could do worse.
Personally, I couldn't help but roll my eyes at how genuinely terrible the acting is. The performances are mostly on the level of a church play, even from actors who have been working for many years. I have a suspicion that director Neill Fearnley (whose resume is littered with mediocre made-for-tv movies and episodes of generally terrible television shows) is to blame, as his direction is as blatantly obvious as the acting. As far as Fearnley is concerned, there's no explicit foreshadowing too overt, no Important Close-up too over-the-top and no bit of dialogue too loaded with awkward exposition. I can only wonder whether the storytelling was any better in the novel by Donald Davenport and Kenny Rogers. Probably not, given that Davenport also wrote the teleplay. And yes, it's that Kenny Rogers. Funny old world.
If the film ever crosses the line from "innocuously simplistic" to "offensively simplistic," it's in some of the scenes that attempt to tackle race relations. There isn't a single moment in this department that seems authentic—not the stiffly staged scene in which Rodney insults the white students from the back of the bus, and not the giddy scene in which DJ marches to the back of the bus and sits proudly beside Rodney the next day. When Daniel learns that his precious DJ is quite the nasty little racist, he looks heavenward and offers his best Atticus Finch impression: "So help me, I will not allow my boy to grow up a bigot." Noble, but so preposterously artificial that we don't buy it for a second. Many period dramas with racial themes are guilty of doing pompous preaching in hindsight rather than trying to honestly examine the social complexities of the past, but Christmas in Canaan tops just about all of them in its ham-fisted delivery.
The DVD transfer is solid enough, spotlighting the film's handsome period design (about the only aspect of the movie that feels genuinely professional). Audio is also pretty good, though the score by John Sereda and Paul Michael Thomas has a tendency to overemphasize everything. There are no supplements of any sort on the disc.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Vivendi Visual Entertainment
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