Dir: Aml Ameen. Starring: Aml Ameen, Aja Naomi King, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Leigh-Anne Pinnock, Yasmin Monet Prince. 12A, 110 minutes.
For a good number of Brits, the idea of a romantic comedy set on Boxing Day feels like a miserable endeavour. Who wants to flirt with a mouth full of turkey sandwich, or elbow the love of their life out the way for a discounted PS5? But Aml Ameen, a first-time director already known for his performances in I May Destroy You and Sense8, has drawn from his own family traditions, rooted in the Caribbean viewpoint that the day should be spent with as many family and friends as possible. Out goes materialism, in comes bonhomie in all its forms.
Melvin (Ameen), a successful British author based in Los Angeles, brings his American fiancée Lisa (Aja Naomi King) back home to meet his relatives for the first time. They eat. They play cards. They dance. As these celebrations play out, the film precisely captures that fleeting but precious rush of gratitude that can strike a person this time of year. Most holiday films will celebrate that sentiment – characters realising how lucky they are to be surrounded by so many that love them – but few understand how quiet and unpronounced it really is. Filmmakers don’t need to draw our attention to it, or even directly remark upon it. The feeling, in reality, mostly comes and goes in an instant.
It’s a rare achievement contained within an even rarer type of film: a Black-led, British romantic comedy. But there are, unfortunately, limits to how new and invigorating Boxing Day actually feels. Ameen, who also wrote the script, may have a good eye for realism, but his film quite consciously exists in the shadow of Christmas romcoms of old – namely, Richard Curtis’s Love Actually. It has its own opening monologue about the state of things (“we’ve never been more disconnected from each other,” it goes) and a scene where Melvin spells out his love for Lisa through a series of placards.
But each passing year has converted more people to the idea that Love Actually does, in fact, have very little to say about love. It never interrogates why so many of the film’s women are simply expected to shoulder the burdens of men’s romantic whims. And it’s a film that, by its end, seems to reward selfishness as long as it’s wrapped up in the bow of a grand romantic gesture.
Boxing Day similarly falters when it comes to the framing of its romantic relationships. Melvin is faced with a crisis when “the one that got away”, pop star Georgia (Little Mix’s Leigh-Anne Pinnock), turns up on his family’s doorstep, looking for a little validation after being cheated on. And while Georgia isn’t as outrightly vain or cruel as the usual romantic rival, the film can’t help but pitch her and Lisa against each other and draw them into a pointless, verbal catfight.
The problem is partially how unbalanced the central trio feels. Ameen, though certainly charming, feels completely eclipsed by King, who knows how to land a joke without looking too much like she’s trying to be funny. Pinnock, meanwhile, is an artist who’s learned how to be very good at being herself on camera, but not necessarily someone else. There’s a self-conscious, mannered quality to her performance that always keeps her at a slight distance from her costars.
And while she might be one of the film’s primary box office draws, the entire love triangle plot feels peripheral to what really matters here – that is, the way that family shapes people’s romantic expectations. The problem in Melvin and Lisa’s relationship is really just the unresolved trauma of his parents’s divorce, which was announced on Boxing Day. And there’s a beautiful scene in which his mother (played by the magnificent Marianne Jean-Baptiste) shares her hesitations about introducing her white boyfriend to her children, since her own approach to parenting was so embedded in the idea that they should “take pride in what they saw in the mirror”. Love Actually never had anything as profound as that to say – so what exactly is Boxing Day trying to emulate?