Brief synopsis: a charmer is tasked by his CEO mother with getting a stubborn farm family to sell their farmland so as their company can build a new warehouse. The task is made more difficult when he gets to the farm and is mistaken for a farmhand, a mistake he does not correct. He pretends to be the farmhand in the hope of getting closer to the stubborn daughter.
Is it any good?: A California Christmas is better than expected. Truthfully, it is not much of a Christmas film. Christmas is more a deadline than a feature, with the story being set in the run-up to Christmas. With good performances from the majority of there cast and a story that, though predictable, is well told, A California Christmas is an enjoyable Christmas-esque romcom.
Spoiler territory: charming playboy, Joseph Van Aston (Josh Swickard) leaves his latest conquest in the bed of one of his family’s hotels as he dashes to a board meeting being held by his mother, Amy (Julie Lancaster).
He arrives late and the meeting is in full swing. As he enters the room, Amy says he will be the perfect person to close the deal on a farm they are trying to acquire. After the meeting, Amy tells her son that he has to close the deal to show her that he is more than just a playboy. If he does not, she will take away all of his privileges, including his driver and righthand man, Leo (Ali Afshar).
There are two weeks until Christmas and Leo drives Joseph from the city to the farm. As they drive through the rural landscape, Leo tells Joseph that it is wine country and that eighty percent of the wines produced in the country is made in California. Joseph puts his headphones on.
A bump in the road causes Joseph to spill coffee on himself. Luckily, because Leo has clothing in the car for a charity run he is doing, he can change. He puts on more casual attire and, leaving Leo behind, takes the short walk to the farmhouse.
He arrives at the farmhouse to find a calf being born and him being enlisted to help youngster, Hannah (Natalie Mann) and her older sister and farm boss, Callie (Lauren Swickard). After helping the women birth the calf, Callie, mistakenly thinking Joseph is the new ranch hand, tells him that she has been expecting someone from the city. She is ready for him. She indicates a shotgun.
Callie does not take to him. She thinks he believes working on a farm will be easy. She takes him to his accommodation. It is a rickety old, caravan. She thinks his name is Manny, her mother, Wendy (Amanda Detmer), having hired him. Joseph decides to go along with it. He contacts Leo and tells him the job is going to take longer than he thought.
He needs Leo to find the real Manny and prevent him from turning up at the ranch. Leo, who is getting the car washed, is told to find a place to stay as well as finding the elusive Manny. As luck would have it, Manny (David Del Rio), is at the same carwash as Leo. One of the washers bellows his name, alerting Leo. Leo approaches Manny.
Back in the farmhouse, the girls are with their mother having lunch. Callie remarks on how unlike a farmhand Joseph seems. Wendy is very poorly as she is dying from cancer and weakened by her chemotherapy treatments. Wendy goes to lie down after lunch. Leo makes arrangements with Manny, the two staying in a local farmhouse. Joseph goes looking for them.
Wendy and Callie chat in the kitchen. She wants her daughter to relax a bit, let the new ranch hand do the work. Callie is not sure about him, she feels like something is not right. She asks what happened to Van Aston, who was expecting to visit. Wendy tells her that he emailed to reschedule.
Conner (Gunnar Anderson), a family friend and sweet on Callie, comes to see them. He asks Callie out. She tells him she is not interested in anything romantic with him. Joseph finds the farmhouse that Leo and Manny are staying in. He tells Leo he plans to get Callie to trust him, as Manny, and get her to sell. He pays Manny to help him fake being a farmhand.
Callie drives to the site of her father and fiancé’s death to place flowers. She is still wearing her engagement ring but takes it off and puts it in her pocket. The next morning, Joseph is up early for his chores. He has to call Manny to be told what the jobs are and how to do them. As Joseph gets to work, Leo and Manny get used to being roommates.
Callie is on the phone dealing with creditors. The farm is under huge debts and they have received an eviction notice. Joseph calls Manny to ask how to milk a cow but is interrupted by Hannah. She tells him how to milk the cow. Callie comes into the barn moments after the conversation.
Leo and Manny drink red wine. Manny surprises Leo with his natural ability to identify the elements that make up the wine. Joseph continues to work but later Callie finds that he has not left any feed out for the cows. She goes to get him, needing help to get the feed from a, particularly high spot. She finds the feed is out of date.
Callie says she has to go to work. Joseph asks her if she ever sleeps or has fun. She shuts down the conversation. She leaves for work. Hannah looks up the real Manny online. At the bar, Callie meets up with another worker and friend, Liz (Katelyn Epperly), and tells her about her mother not going to her final chemotherapy session.
Joseph visits the bar to try and get to know Callie better. Leo comes into the bar, causing Joseph to panic, especially when Manny comes into the bar shortly afterwards. A drunken Conner greets Manny. He asks who Joseph is. Manny tells him he is another ‘Manny’.
Conner goes and accosts Callie. Joseph intervenes and gets punched for his troubles as the two start to fight. Callie kicks them both out of the bar. Outside the bar, Conner sees Joseph and Leo chatting. The next day, as Joseph continues to work, Callie takes the day off and spends time with her family.
Callie softens towards Joseph. She chats to him as he works and cleans one of the garages. She shows him a bike that her late father was working on. Joseph tells her that his father died when he was young. Joseph is invited to have dinner with the family.
Joseph continues to work and eat with the family, getting closer to all of them. He helps to decorate the house as they get closer to Christmas. Callie, abrasive and single-minded normally, softens around him. Wendy thanks him for his impact on the family.
Joseph goes to see Leo. Leo tells him that his mother wants to know what is going on, Joseph has been ignoring her calls. He tells him that he can see Joseph is in love. Manny tells Joseph that he has to tell her. Leo and Manny have bonded over his ability to identify the ingredients in wines. Conner spies Joseph with Leo and Manny.
Joseph wrestles with telling Callie the truth. Callie takes Joseph to see a small patch of land where her father planted wine vines he brought from France some years before. He had wanted to turn the ranch into a vineyard. They share a bottle of wine produced from the vines and Callie tells him that the family is in heavy debt.
He asks her if she cannot sell up and buy another ranch. She tells him that all her memories are on that ranch. She also tells him about the crash that killed her father and fiancé. They kiss. Conner interrupts. He comes to see Callie and baits Joseph, saying how it is strange that there are two Mannys in one town. Callie gets him to leave.
Joseph talks to Leo. He wants to tell Callie the truth but has not spoken to his mother. He goes to see Callie and they start kissing again, him forgetting why he is there. Hannah interrupts them, telling them that Wendy is not up yet. Callie goes to wake her mother up. She is very poorly and she ends up taking her to the hospital.
As Callie takes her mother back home, she tries to persuade her to have the chemotherapy again. Wendy tells her that she would rather spend the time she has left with her family at home. Joseph agonises over what to do as he reminisces about his father. He shows Callie her father’s bike. He has restored it. He takes her to work.
Joseph tears up the contract his mother wants Callie to sign. He ignores another call from his mother. She calls Leo and tells him that she is coming to the farm the next day. Leo and Manny go looking for Joseph but do not see him dancing in the bar with Callie and leave.
A drunk Conner leaves just after them, unable to bear watching Callie with Joseph. He hears Leo and Manny talking about Joseph outside the bar and looks him up on the internet. Callie and Joseph go and look at the stars and make love. The next day, Callie receives a text from Conner.
He exposes Joseph. She calls Conner. Leo comes to get Joseph. His mother has arrived at the farmhouse. Joseph tries to tell his mother that she cannot buy the farmhouse. She tells him that he cannot stop her. Amy goes into the house with her lawyer. She tells Wendy that her medical bills are big. Wendy thinks her life insurance will pay them off. Amy tells her that her late husband took out a loan against the policy. They have no option; they have to sell
Callie kicks Joseph out. Joseph goes to meet up with Leo and Manny. He gives Leo the wine from Callie. Leo tastes it and thinks it is good. He lets Manny taste it. He agrees. It is a very good wine. They take the wine to a wine merchant (Aaron Royce Jones). He likes the wine. Callie looks over the old wine cellar and finds the vineyard sign.
Joseph races back to tell Callie that he might have a solution. He goes and starts tidying the vineyard plot. Callie finds him on the land. He explains to her that the wine is good. They tidy the vineyard and put up the sign. The next day, the merchant visits. He is happy with what he sees and makes her an offer. The amount is enough to clear the debts and save their home.
Joseph tells his mother what he did. She is proud of him. Christmas Day, the family, Wendy and Hannah, invite the town to their barn. Callie knows nothing about the party. Conner helped. Joseph is at the party. He makes peace with Callie. He wants to keep working with her and being with her. They get together.
A year later, Wendy has died and Joseph and Callie are still together. The vineyard is flourishing. The end.
Final thoughts: A California Christmas is an enjoyable, festive rom-com. Written by Lauren Swickard, who also plays Callie and has a production credit, and directed by Shaun Paul Piccinino, the film zips through its one hundred and six-minute runtime.
The story is quite predictable and is passably festive but due to the strong performances and gentle humour, it works despite these shortcomings. The central pairing of the married Lauren and Josh Swickard works really well and her doe-eyed love for him comes across as truthful probably because it is.
The bromance between Afshar’s Leo and Del Rio’s Manny is delightful, with Del Rio sparkling as the rough-around-the-edges but blessed with a talent for discerning wines, Manny. The film tugs on the heartstrings with an ill parent in Detmer’s Wendy and Swickard’s Callie determined to save the family home and the memories of her father and fiancé.
The scenery is lovely, with the rural landscape providing a perfect backdrop for the romance, even if it is not particularly Christmassy. Swickard has fashioned a nice rom-com that is worth a watch in the festive break.