Holiday season movies are a time-honored tradition, but African American holiday season films exist in a genre of their own. From Malcolm Lee’s “The Best Man Holiday” to Preston A. Whitmore II’s “This Christmas,” the nuances of black life at the proverbial “most wonderful time of the year” have enraptured audiences for years. David E. Talbert’s latest entry “Almost Christmas” just might be the most satisfying entry in this genre to date.
Led by the ever-reliable Danny Glover as heartbroken family patriarch Walter Meyers, “Almost Christmas” benefits from a robust cast in tune with the material. Mo’Nique stars as Walter’s hilarious and outspoken sister-in-law May. Strong supporting work comes from Gabrielle Union, Kimberly Elise, Romany Malco, Nicole Ari Parker, J.B. Smoove, Omar Epps and Jessie T. Usher.
“Almost Christmas” follows the eclectic Meyers clan as they embark on their first Christmas since burying their beloved mother, Grace. The film opens in 1971, with nostalgic thoughts about a slice of sweet potato pie — and then glides forward in time, highlighting births and other significant moments, until we land in the present day. The dysfunctional family heads to their childhood home in Birmingham, Alabama to stay with their father, Walter, just five days before Christmas. Still grieving the loss of his wife, Walter is still determined to have a positive holiday experience. He even sets out to make his wife’s traditional sweet potato pie (which results in disaster) before his sons and daughters descend on him.
The Meyers kids each bring their baggage home with them for the holidays. Well-to-do Dr. Cheryl Meyers (Elise) is stuck in a rut with her husband, Lonnie (Smoove). Recently divorced Rachel, (Union) is still trying to figure things out while parenting a tween daughter, who just might have it more together than she does. Christian, (Malco) a senator running for Congress, just can’t seem to stop working. Meanwhile, the youngest, Evan (Usher), is a college football star, who chooses to ignore his grief rather than face it head on.
On the surface, “Almost Christmas” has all the markings of a generic holiday comedy. That’s not entirely wrong: it has a ton of corny jokes amidst a generally warm and fuzzy message. But the performances elevate it: Mo’Nique is spectacular as a no-holds-barred backup singer who isn’t afraid to put her family in their place, while the handful of child actors shine as young millennial attached to their iPhones and enthralled in “grown folks business.”
J.B. Smoove and “Survivor’s Remorse” star Jesse T. Usher both stand out as regular scene-stealers. As Lonnie, the fast-talking former NBA player desperately clinging onto his glory days, Smoove’s perfect comedic timing and physical comedy keep the film moving at a sharp and hilarious pace. Usher is also superb as the youngest of the Meyers clan who uses his charm and witty banter in an attempt to mask the devastation that he feels as a result of his beloved mother’s death. However, not every casting choice lands as well. “Soul Food” alum Nicole Ari Parker is given very little to do as Christian’s wife, and while the focus of a good chunk of the film is the tension between Rachel and Cheryl, Talbert doesn’t spend much time honing in on the origins of that dynamic.
But even as “Almost Christmas” follows a series of predictable twists, that doesn’t negate its charm. The film embraces every opportunity for the warm, inviting feelings conjured up by the memories of that perfect slice of sweet potato pie — and anyone who knows what that tastes like won’t be disappointed.
“Almost Christmas” opens nationwide on November 11.