December 20, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Mick Davis
Culture Representation: Taking place in York, England, the comedy/drama “My Dad’s Christmas Date” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people) representing the middle-class.
Culture Clash: A 16-year-old British girl tries to help her lonely widower American father by signing him up for a dating service without his permission.
Culture Audience: “My Dad’s Christmas Date” will appeal primarily to people who like movies about father/daughter relationships that blend semi-realistic comedy with sentimental drama.
The comedy/drama “My Dad’s Christmas Date” (directed by Mick Davis) is not as sappy and predictable as it first appears to be, but there are still some blatant formulaic, tearjerking moments in this family dramedy that’s elevated by a memorable performance by Olivia-Mai Barrett. The concept of the movie isn’t very original (a child plays matchmaker for a single and available parent), and any movie with the word “Christmas” in the title is almost guaranteed to have some schmaltz. Considering how badly it could’ve turned out, “My Dad’s Christmas Date” competently serves its purpose of offering inoffensive family entertainment without being too corny.
One of the better things about the movie is that it does not fall into the same predictable trap that comedic films tend to do when a teenager is one of the main characters: The teen is either a precocious brat or someone who’s too good to be true. Julia “Jules” Evans (played by Barrett), the 16-year-old at the center of “My Dad’s Christmas Date,” is neither. She’s a lot like girls her age: She’s embarrassed and frustrated by parental figures, and she’s just starting to find her identity when it comes to relationships.
Jules lives in York, England, with her American widower father David (played Jeremy Piven), a businessman who is lonely and sad enough to frequently drown his sorrows in plenty of alcohol. (He’s not an alcoholic though.) Jules and David are both grieving over the death of David’s wife/Jules’ mother, Claire Evans (played in flashbacks/hallucinations by Megan Brown), who passed away in a car accident two years before this story takes place.
Because Claire and David got married in York, it’s implied that David stayed in England permanently because of his relationship with Claire. (It’s never revealed in the movie how this couple met.) The marriage was very happy, and so Claire’s death has upended the lives of David and Jules.
Throughout the movie, David sees visions of Claire, and he goes in an almost trance-like state when he sees her. But thankfully, it’s not too over-the-top because Piven depicts it as someone basking in the glow of happy memories. The implication is clear though: David has had a hard time moving on with his life. And he thinks of Claire as an image of perfection that he doesn’t think he’ll be able to find again in another romantic partner.
Jules goes to a tuition school that requires that the students wear uniforms. Her best friend is an upbeat but gossipy fellow student at the school named Emma (played by Hadar Cats), who knows one of Jules’ biggest secrets: Jules has been dating her longtime crush Ben (played by Felix Butterwick), who has a reputation in the school for being a playboy. Later, it’s revealed in the story that Emma had been infatuated with Ben for at least two years before she and Ben started dating each other.
Jules isn’t sleeping with Ben, and there are big hints in the movie (based on what she says) that Jules is still a virgin and she wants to take things slow with Ben. Jules hasn’t told David about Ben being her boyfriend because she doesn’t know how to talk to her father about dating and the physical changes that are part of becoming a woman. She also thinks that David wouldn’t approve of Ben or any guy that she dates because David still wants to think of Jules as his little girl.
Jules is also at an age when she has to start thinking about future plans that she’ll have after she graduates from high school. Her desire for adult independence yet still being legally a child manifests in a frustration that’s very common with underage teenagers, when they argue with authority figures and act very embarrassed by what their own parents say or do. This parent/teenager bickering happens throughout “My Dad’s Christmas Date.”
For example, in an early scene where David is driving Jules to school, it’s close to the Christmas holiday season, and the arguing starts when Jules doesn’t want David to keep the car radio on while “Jingle Bells” is playing. The disagreement escalates into David expressing concern over Jules possibly making decisions because of peer pressure. “I want you to feel comfortable questioning things,” David tells Jules.
Jules snaps back, “Just because I’m a woman, I can’t think for myself, right?” David replies, “This has nothing to do with you being a woman. You know that.” Although the character of Claire is somewhat of a mystery in this story, there are signs that she influenced Jules to have a strong feminist sensibility, because it comes out in different ways throughout the story.
At school, Jules has a meeting with the headmaster Mr. Thompson (played by Roger Ashton-Griffiths), who expresses concern that Jules’ grades have gone downhill ever since her mother’s death. Mr. Thompson even has the trouble saying any words associated with the word death. It’s an awkward conversation, and Jules responds with her typical sarcasm, which she clearly inherited from her father.
Jules’ best friend Emma knows that Jules and David haven’t had a very good relationship lately. Emma thinks that David is sad and lonely and suggests that David should get set up with someone for a date. At first, Jules thinks it’s a bad idea, but she later changes her mind because she decides if David has the distraction of a new love, maybe he’ll be a happier person and he won’t get on her nerves as much as he does now.
Meanwhile, David is seen having a drink in a pub with his ex-girlfriend Sarah (played by Joely Richardson), who has reconnected with David since Claire died. For reasons that are never really explained in the movie, Claire despised Sarah, but David remained friendly with Sarah after he and Sarah ended their romantic relationship. Sarah is separated from her husband Mike (played by Michael Maloney), and they are co-parenting their two kids (a girl and a boy), who look like they’re about 7 or 8 years old.
David complains to Sarah that he and Jules used to get along well, but now they constantly argue. He’s not sure if it’s because of typical teen rebellion, the death of Claire or both. David asks Sarah, “What’s the cure?” Sarah quips, “Menopause.”
Jules puts her plans into motion to find David a girlfriend or at least a date for the Christmas holiday season. Without David’s knowledge or permission, she signs him up for an online dating service. Jules also pretends to be David when she’s communicating with potential dates. While impersonating David, she makes arrangements for the women to meet David in public places while Jules is there too, so she can evaluate their potential.
It’s a scheme that results in women randomly coming up to David and knowing a lot about him but he doesn’t know who they are. Of course, these shenanigans can only last for so long before David finds out the reason for these not-so-random encounters. His reaction leads to even more drama, but it makes David confront some harsh realities that he’s been using Claire’s death as an excuse to feel sorry for himself and deprive himself of trying to find happiness.
Does that mean he’ll fall in love with someone new in this story? That question is answered in the movie, which doesn’t follow the usual stereotypes of what people think might happen. Jules also goes through some relationship drama with Ben. And there comes a time when she has to decide what she wants and deserves in a romance, as well as confront the reasons why she’s been afraid to hide her relationship with Ben from her father.
“My Dad’s Christmas Date” was written by Brian Marchetti, Jack Marchetti and Toby Torlesse, who strike the right balance of a screenplay that can appeal to different generations of people. However, this movie is nowhere near being a masterpiece and has many elements of a made-for-TV movie, including a musical score that sometimes sounds like it was lifted from a generic sitcom. The movie could’ve veered into some insufferable slapstick, but thankfully, the story is mostly grounded in realism.
The father/daughter relationship is at the heart of the story. And what will appeal most to viewers is how relatable David and Jules are most of the time. Piven is known for playing sarcastic characters, but his role in the movie shows his range to portray vulnerability and someone who is damaged by grief. Barrett has the harder role, which she adeptly handles, because she has to express some very adult emotions for Jules without being too worldly for a relatively sheltered teenager.
David is not a perfect dad. He’s often gruff and cranky. Jules can be too. But it’s clear that they both love each other, and their communication problems are rooted in not being able to fully express the grief they have over the death of Claire. And if there’s a happy ending to this story, it might not be the perfect fantasy, but it’s a lot closer to real life than most other movies with the word “Christmas” in the title.
Gravitas Ventures released “My Dad’s Christmas Date” in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on November 6, 2020.