If Bush Christmas were rebooted in 2023, it might look something like Jones Family Christmas.
Warm, gentle and feelgood with a looming natural disaster in the bush, the film is the brainchild of comedian / writer Tegan Higginbotham whose 2019 Christma with family in Maffra, Gippsland, was threatened by a summer of bushfires we all remember too well.
After penning an audio play in response to the collision of Christmas and danger, it has become the latest in a growing run of local Christmas movies from Stan.
The play-qualities are evident in the screenplay, landing as a naturalistic, three-act homestead story -but with some distinct diversity flavours for modern audiences.
Heather (Heather Mitchell) is matriarch of the Jones clan who, along with reserved farmer Brian (Neil Melville), is welcoming family members home for the festive season. Newly-single, gay daughter Alex (Max McKenna) is already on edge ahead of the arrival of her older sister Christina (Ella Scott Lynch) who is returning from the UK with Sri Lankan-born husband Mishan (Dushan Philips) and their son William (Anay Gadre).
Fussy Heather just wants a perfect family gathering and is busily cooking a 14 layered cake as part of her Christmas Day spread. But when son Danny (Nicholas Denton) arrives with his new partner Felicity (Tahlee Fereday), celebrations move into unchartered territory, especially for one family member.
Amid the domestic upheaval is an encroaching Gippsland bushfire, prompting everyone to enact a bushfire plan and join the locals, amiably portrayed by actors Genevieve Morris, Marg Downey, Tanya Hennessy, Bev Killick, Fiona Choi and Jimmy Rees. Writer Tegan Higginbotham will also make a cameo appearance.
Heather Mitchell is always a joy to watch, even here in a meddling, mother hen role, where she is (deliberately?) given a bunch of Aussie idioms: “No news is good news / Here’s trouble” etc.
There are also touches of kangaroos, outdoor dunnies (complete with huntsman) and all the important discussions amusingly taking place in private in the loo.
Thankfully the inclusion of LGBT and ethnic characters manages to root it in 2023, instead of feeling like 1983. As a work by a young writer / performer, it’s surprising this is so traditional -not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Higginbotham certainly creates warm characters and never opts for jokey punchlines. Poignant scenes include a touching exchange between the underrated Neil Melville and Genevieve Morris, which is very contemporary and very real.
Director Stef Smith doesn’t quite pull off the magnitude of a bushfire, which is largely confined to smoky scenes and a few lit branches. With works such as Fires and even the recent Heat, this needed better or execution or probably a bigger budget.
But it’s a minor point in what is an easy entertainment with a bright ensemble you’d be happy to welcome to your Christmas dinner table. Stan is the only platform bringing us locally-made Christmas movies, long may it continue.
Jones Family Christmas screens Thursday 23 November on Stan.