The holiday movie season is officially underway, and along with the usual treacly treats comes Exmas, a Freevee movie centered on the battle between two exes, Graham (Robbie Amell) and Ali (Leighton Meester), for the right to spend Christmas — and all future holidays — with Graham’s parents and siblings. Think Jingle All the Way, but the toy being fought over is a family’s love.
The title and premise are the first clues that Exmas isn’t the typical cozy holiday movie, and yet, the trailer and sassy key art cannot prepare you for just how uncomfortable this movie really is. Director Jonah Feingold (At Midnight) and writer Dan Steele (a Gossip Girl alum, like Meester) may not even realize it — though, you do have to wonder what exactly they find heartwarming about the idea of a guy’s family being so indifferent to his presence that they eagerly invite the woman who broke his heart to spend the holidays with them.
Contrary to their shiny, pleasant exteriors, holiday movies often thrive on conflict, which can border on sadism. People race to be reunited with their families, or take painstaking measures to spend the holidays alone, only to be forced back home. Lessons are learned — sometimes painful ones, though they’re almost always rewarding. Materialism is rampant, and travel becomes a Kafkaesque nightmare. Those are some of the sweeter entries; there are much more prickly affairs, including Just Friends and more recently, Happiest Season. (Last Christmas remains in its own rarefied — read: batsh*t— air.) And do we even need to mention A Christmas Carol (that is, any of the adaptations of Charles Dickens’ novel)?
Exmas isn’t breaking any holiday movie rules by choosing to be naughty over nice, though it’s unclear just how intentional that choice is. Feingold and Steele broach thorny territory with a lead character (Graham) who doesn’t seem to be wanted by anyone — not his ex-fiancé, his family, or his co-workers — and what it means to realize this during the most wonderful time of the year. Even George Bailey wasn’t ostracized like this.
After one especially sad delivery dinner, that includes being entranced by a pharmaceutical drug advertisement, Graham heads to Minnesota for the comforts of home. It’s a surprise visit, because he’d just told his parents (played by Michael Hitchcock and Kathryn Greenwood) he was going to have to work through Christmas. Like someone who’s on the apps, though, his mom just shifts gears and invites Ali, who dumped her son six months ago with zero explanation, to spend the holidays in the wintry north.
Exmas does lay the groundwork for this betrayal in the opening scene, as Ali explains to her married friends that she maintains a good relationship with the Stroups (aside from Graham). Her friends sensibly point out that it’s weird that she’s still close to her ex’s family, and 15 to 20 minutes pass before we find out why Ali might be clinging to them: her only family is a dad with a penchant for much younger women. (Why Graham’s family constantly chooses Ali over him remains a mystery; he’s not the most endearing guy, but Amell makes him likable enough.)
Ali’s plight takes precedence over Graham’s, because it is Christmas, after all, and a virtual adult orphan needs more family game nights than a video game developer who calls home maybe once a month. (Given how readily Graham’s family chooses Ali over him, though, that kind of makes sense.) And, to her credit, she’s much better at bonding with the Stroups — she actually listens when they talk, gives good advice, and makes great food. That is, until she and Graham enter into their little wager, and he slowly exposes her more negative qualities, like being ultra-competitive and having a weird hatred of goats.
But even getting the entire family, including Graham’s teetotaling mom, high on weed butter by accident (she mistakenly reads “THC” as “thick”) doesn’t undermine Ali’s standing among the Stroups. They cozy up to her throughout, setting her up in Graham’s old room and leaving him to choose between sleeping on the couch in the living room, in the midst of all the yelling and eating, and the one in the basement that’s covered in cat diarrhea.
It’s all so perverse, if not especially funny — despite being produced by Freevee and BuzzFeed Studios, the jokes are squarely in Hallmark movie territory. Amell and Meester have little chemistry, but that actually suits the movie’s overall discomfiting vibe. In Exmas, you can go home again, but why would you want to, when exes, snubs, and cat diarrhea await you?
Feces-related specifics aside, these tensions mark Exmas as part of a subset of holiday movies, which capture just how uncomfortable it can be to go home: movies like Home for the Holidays, Nothing Like the Holidays, and the standard bearer, The Family Stone — wherein families are abrasive or judgmental, and warm feelings are almost incidental.
In many ways, Exmas plays like a bizarro Family Stone. Instead of the prodigal son (Dermot Mulroney) bringing home his uptight new girlfriend (Sarah Jessica Parker) to be picked apart by his smug family, who think no woman could possibly be good enough for him (until they meet 2000s Claire Danes), the ex-fiancé (Meester) is adored by her former-future-in-laws, while the son (Amell) is basically Esau.
Both films feature a parent who’s hiding an illness and a heartbroken sibling trying to tough it out, though only The Family Stone joins While You Were Sleeping in the “brother swap” rom-com subgenre. And neither movie’s happy ending can completely erase the unpleasantness that precedes it; like every other aspect of life, being around family is a mix of sweet and sour moments. The holiday movie season could use more tart offerings to cut all the cloying ones. If that is in fact what Exmas is offering, then it’s worth queueing up.
Exmas is streaming on Freevee.
Danette Chavez is the Editor-in-Chief of Primetimer and its biggest fan of puns.