George and Carol Boyajian (William Devane and Meredith Baxter) have not celebrated Christmas since their son John (Aaron Ashmore) died on Christmas Eve in the Gulf War a decade previously. The current Christmas is especially difficult, as their 22-year-old daughter Jean (Reagan Pasternak) is waiting for the results of a breast biopsy.
George resolves that this year will be different and the family will celebrate Christmas once more, despite his daughter's surprise and the skepticism of his emotionally prickly wife. The merchants in George's small town spontaneously donate Christmas lights, a tree, and even Christmas postage stamps to support George as he finds his way back to the Christmas holiday.
As George is driving home he picks up a hitchhiker named Matthew (Dean McDermott) who also served in the Gulf War. Matthew accompanies George home and spends a pleasant Christmas Eve with the family, helping them enjoy the holiday for the first time in years. George is mystified, however, that Matthew seems to know a great deal about his late son John.
This is a well-done, touching film. The story is somewhat predictable, covering well-trod ground, but that doesn't make it any less moving or enjoyable. I especially liked the depiction of small-town life, including the simple way George's friends and neighbors are moved to help him celebrate Christmas. It's not at the top of my list of favorite Christmas films, but it's a worthwhile entry in the Christmas film genre and worth taking the time to watch.
I've been a fan of William Devane since the TV production THE MISSILES OF OCTOBER (1974), in which he played John F. Kennedy, was shown at my high school. I guess it must have been a 16mm print as videotapes weren't widely used until I was in college. (The film is now on DVD; I enjoyed revisiting it a few years ago.) Over the years I've enjoyed Devane in the miniseries BLACK BEAUTY (1978) and FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1979, opposite Natalie Wood), the film YANKS (1979), and more recently THE WEST WING (playing the Secretary of State in a couple episodes) and the JESSE STONE film series. He's a natural, believable actor who's always interesting to watch.
When I was in college I saw Meredith Baxter in a stage production of VANITIES at the Westwood Playhouse with Annette O'Toole and Shelley Hack; I found a photo online here. (She also once sat behind me with her then-husband, David Birney, at an Equity waiver theatrical production of Ibsen's A DOLL HOUSE, starring Linda Purl.) Although Baxter is best known for the '80s series FAMILY TIES, I liked her best as Meg in a TV production of LITTLE WOMEN (1978); it's available on YouTube and DVD.
Baxter is quite good as a woman who's become a bit of a distant crank as she struggles to deal with her unbearable loss. The moment where she realizes how her refusal to celebrate Christmas has impacted her daughter was the most emotionally raw moment in the film, as she comes to terms with how selfish she's been for so many years.
This Hallmark film was directed by Christopher Leitch. It was shot on location in Toronto. The running time is 87 minutes.
A CHRISTMAS VISITOR is available on DVD.