Of all the movies I was looking forward to in this year’s slate of Countdown to Christmas movies, I have to confess that Hallmarks’s Inventing the Christmas Prince wasn’t at the top of the list. The premise – that a mom has invented stories about a mythical “Christmas Prince” that she must bring to life when her daughter becomes convinced the Prince is her boss – just seemed like the heroine was borrowing more trouble than necessary. Even for a Hallmark movie. So imagine my surprise to find Inventing the Christmas Prince was also one of my favorite movies in the Countdown to Christmas slate so far.
The truth is, it has a lot going for it. Not the least of which is the most adorable child I’ve seen in film or television in ages. Isabel Birch plays Grace, a True Believer if ever there was one. Her mother told her about the Christmas Prince, and she believes. It doesn’t matter that nobody else has heard of him. It doesn’t even matter that the class bully keeps throwing the Prince’s fictional nature in her face. She believes, even when her mother tries to get her to back off her belief just a tad. (Incidentally, I don’t know how anyone could take one look at Grace’s face and not ground Sherman (Brady Droulis) for the next ten years for being such a little brat to her.)
Of course, Birch alone couldn’t – and doesn’t – carry the movie. Tamera Mowry-Housley stars as single mother Shelby, who’s determined to keep the Christmas magic alive for her daughter at any cost. She brings such tenderness to the role, particularly in her scenes with Birch, that it isn’t hard to understand why she’d undertake this entire charade. As she even acknowledges in the movie, the world will ruin the magic for her daughter soon enough. She wants her to have what she can for as long as she can. Particularly since Grace has lost so much already. Most notably, her father.
While Mowry-Housley shines the brightest in the scenes between Shelby and Grace, she also does a fantastic job handling her character’s grief and the weight it has placed upon her. Of course, Inventing the Christmas Prince doesn’t spend an undue amount of time exploring her grief. This isn’t that kind of Christmas movie, after all. But Mowry-Housley makes the absolute most of the time she’s given. Her admission that her grief was – and is – accompanied by anger at her husband for dying and leaving was particularly poignant and felt surprisingly real for an otherwise lighthearted romantic comedy. It may not be logical, and it almost certainly isn’t fair, but that kind of anger is very common and very real.
Her grief and desire to spare both her daughter and herself similar pain in the future has also led her to cut herself off from love. She’s even gone so far as to promise her daughter never to marry again. The fact that this is a promise Grace never requested or demanded of her shows that this vow isn’t entirely for her daughter’s benefit. So the journey Shelby must undergo throughout the film is as much for herself as for her daughter, and Mowry-Housley completely sells her at times begrudging personal transformation as she opens herself up to love once more. Not only to love as a concept, but to a man she once might have called her worst enemy.
As warm and caring as Mowry-Housley is throughout Inventing the Christmas Prince, Ronnie Rowe‘s Evan is seemingly the opposite. But even at his most awkward and apparently standoffish, Rowe injects his performance with a raw vulnerability that’s incredibly endearing. He cares. Or at least, he wants to care. He just doesn’t know how to connect to people and never has.
On its face, Rowe’s arc is about learning to open himself up to others. But on a more fundamental level, his journey is about learning to understand others. Watching his progression from an apparent emotional automaton (even nicknamed “Spock” with something less than affection) to begrudgingly agreeing to participate in the Christmas Prince charade (with no small amount of trepidation and even terror) to truly understanding not just why Shelby would go through such trouble but why doing so is important was truly a joy to watch.
More than that, his personal growth was believable. H regret when he realizes how awful his previous behavior had been was downright palpable, and you could see his own growing determination to give Grace every ounce of Christmas magic she deserved. His final grand gesture – showing up in full regalia, complete with horse and carriage – is more for Grace’s benefit than for Shelby’s, which is even more romantic than if they’d tried to play it any other way.
After all, Evan was willing to do anything to give her little girl hope, joy, and Christmas magic. And how do you not fall in love with that?