Director: Joy Chapman
Cast: Kelly Washington, Amanda Waters, Joanna Daniel
In an age where 12A certificates are used for all manner of explosive, gun-toting blockbusters, there’s a lot to be said for a Christmas movie that is suitable to be watched by people of any age. Mandie and the Forgotten Christmas, though, isn’t suitable to be watched by anyone.
The film is the third movie based on the series of books by Lois Gladys Leppard, which spans a total of 40 novels. Hopefully, they won’t make another 37 like this.
The movie stars Kelly Washington as the eponymous Mandie, the mystery-loving heroine from the page. She finds herself struggling to fit in with the strict rules and customs of her boarding school during the holiday season. Ever curious and rarely obedient, she has all kinds of questions. Why is Miss Heathwood so against decorating the school for Christmas? And why are there strange noises coming from the attic?
She solves this by doing extremely straight-forward things, such as asking Miss Heathwood: “Why don’t you like decorating for Christmas?” “Don’t waste time pondering things that have long since been forgotten,” comes the reply. That matter-of-fact style runs throughout the film, but it soon becomes apparent that it’s less an intentional aesthetic and more just a lack of, well, anything.
The story is set in the early 1900s in North Carolina, something that’s only apparent through the attempted period costumes. But they look synthetic and modern, like a fancy dress costume ordered from eBay last Tuesday. That combines with a complete lack of flair in the directorial department to make something that feels sadly flat and fake: in spite of good work from the young cast, especially Washington’s rebellious lead and Amanda Waters as best friend Polly, it’s less like watching a film and more like watching a group of eight-year-olds dressing up as adults and pretending to make a film. (Director Joy Chapman, it should be noted, is perfect in front of the camera as the knowing Miss Prudence.)
And so the mystery at the heart of the story is swiftly unravelled with minimal fuss, leaving you pondering your own unanswered mysteries. Why, if Mandie is supposedly one-quarter Cherokee, does she have blonde hair and blue eyes? Why does her Native American Uncle Ned (Craig Reuben) speak only in racial stereotypes? And why is the US educational system so snooty when it comes to those of lower classes learning to read and write?
It’s admirable that the script should tackle such socially aware issues for a young audience – the introduction of Celia, a girl eager to learn more than anything else, raises noble questions about equality – but it’s done without any sense of drama or tension. “Must make wrong right,” advises good old Uncle Ned, who is prone to hanging around the school estate and dropping out of trees unannounced (a practice that would raise all kinds of other questions nowadays). “I don’t know how,” cries Mandie. “You must think hard,” he responds. “Then you will know.” The conversation ends.
Mandie’s motivation, meanwhile, is only spelled out in big letters – something that applies equally to Miss Heathwood, whose back-story is virtually written in the sky with a plane. Both are robbed of any emotional depth; the bare minimum for us to be interested in what’s on screen. “If you let it go, you lose hope,” says the optimistic Mandie, when the disenchanted headmistress tells the group their Christmas dinner won’t be complete this year. “If you lose hope, doesn’t a part of you die?” “Are we still talking about turkeys?” asks another pupil. Nobody answers.
All the while, unsubtle festive music plays, which verges from the almost endearingly cheerful to the painfully tinny MIDI music you’d expect to hear in the background of a Gameboy game. Every now and then, it gets louder to highlight a dramatic turn of events. One moment sees Mandie walk through a room and pause to look at a decoration. “That is a very silly place to put a wreath,” she observes. The music swells. Things continue like this for 90 minutes. Artificial, uninvolving and decidedly unmysterious, Mandie and the Forgotten Christmas is something best left unremembered.
Mandie and the Forgotten Christmas is not currently available on UK VOD.