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25 Days of Bingemas, Day 2: ‘The Noel Diary’

On the second day of streaming delightfully absurd holiday movies, we’re gifted a Netflix joint about a mystery novelist, an estranged daughter, and some light adultery

Getty Images/Netflix/Ringer illustration

The Ringer’s 25 Days of Bingemas is a guide for people who love original holiday movies; it’s a guide for people who hate original holiday movies; it’s a guide for people who occasionally watch these movies and want more; its a guide for people who never hope to watch these movies but would like to watch one writer descend into madness as she attempts to differentiate between 25 unique forms of holiday magic, 12 different fake countries, and eight different male leads who make you wonder, Wait, is that the guy from Mean Girls? (It isn’t, except for the one time when it is.) Every day for the next 25 days, Jodi Walker will feature one of this season’s 169 original holiday movies, answering a curated series of questions in order to showcase the genre’s masterful formula, the dedication to chaos, and the commitment to consistently widowing lumberjacks that launched an entire genre of TV movie. On the second day of Bingemas, we turn our cheerful spirits to…

What are we watching?

The Noel Diary.

Where are we watching it?

Netflix.

Why are we watching it?

Because, per Netflix, “cleaning out his childhood home at Christmas, a novelist meets a woman searching for her birth mother. Will an old diary unlock their pasts—and hearts?” I don’t know, WILL IT? (You guys are not gonna believe this, but …)

How many Vanessa Hudgenses are in this?

Zero Vanessa Hudgenses star, but one Justin Hartley from This Is Us stars, which is, frankly, one Justin Hartley too many. I’m so sorry, I recognize that the man has eyes that seem to constantly be sparkling with tears, and the towering presence of a leading man in a TV movie based on a novel—but how could Netflix betray its homegrown star Chrishell Stause like this? After building a reality empire off the power of her and her divorce via text?! I can set the treachery aside for the sake of Christmas spirit, but it has been noted and documented. Barrett Doss—who has probably never broken the heart of a woman who was named after a man who helped her mom after she went into labor at a gas station—also stars.

How believable are the lead characters’ ostensible careers?

Jacob Turner is a bestselling author so famous for his spy novels that he has to say, “Yes, that Jacob Turner” every time he calls a hotel concierge. His gorgeous face covers the sides of buses like he’s Carrie Bradshaw in 2002. (And I couldn’t help but wonder: Does minor celebrity Justin Hartley specify in his contracts that he must play a major celebrity in all of his onscreen roles?) It’s the movie trying to convince us that a bestselling novelist looks like Justin Hartley that I ultimately must call ostensible-shenanigans on. There’s simply not enough time in the day for leg workouts and the constant existential dread of being a writer.

Who’s dead?

OK, this one is a doozy. On just the second day of Bingemas, The Noel Diary is giving this cheat-sheet format a run for its money. Because this original holiday movie is a little more, uh, Eeyore in tone than I’m accustomed to; I don’t think Justin Hartley fully smiles with teeth until the final freeze frame of the movie …

But please rest assured that the movie does end in freeze frame, and the holiday beats are all there: snow, romance, one room at the inn for two allegedly platonic people, and, of course, death. Big breath, here we go: Jacob finds out that his mother died, and has to leave his mansion that modern literature built where he was spending Christmas alone in order to clean out his childhood home. Once there, we find out that his brother also died when they were children, and the lasting trauma of that event is why the family became estranged. The woman loitering outside his mom’s house believes that her birth mother once worked there as a nanny, but doesn’t know whether she’s now alive or dead.

Is there a building in disrepair, or a business facing financial ruin?

It turns out that Jacob’s mom was a hoarder, but was into a very clean kind of hoarding. In fact, much of what she was collecting appears to be cleaning supplies. Most importantly, though: within a buried box marked “personal” is a diary written by Jacob’s love interest Rachel’s birth mother, whose name was—and you’re not gonna believe this—Noel.

How problematic is the meet-cute on a scale of “one saved the other from falling in a snowbank” to “one is the other’s boss and they fall in love on a work trip”?

Unfortunately, Rachel has a fiancé when she stumbles into the hot, mourning man cleaning out her birth mother’s former residence, ultimately setting them on an emotional and sometimes romantic Christmas quest together. But this movie has a real “don’t let your fiancé, Alan, stop you from meeting your husband, Jacob” mentality, and for that we are grateful.

Is there any singing/crafting/baking/blogging?

In 1989, keeping a diary that you hope your birth daughter will eventually discover was basically blogging, so I’m going to say yes: the running narration of Noel’s diary about her pregnancy is akin to a blog. However, I wonder if she would have written with such detail and elegance if she knew that Rachel was going to cozy up in bed to read one of Jacob’s airport novels before she’d even finished her birth mother’s diary containing the details of her birth story that she’s been desperately searching for through snowy backroads with a stranger.

Is there a child who’s wise beyond his/her years?

No, but there is a plot-driving dog named Ava.

Does anyone almost kiss only to be interrupted?

Yes, interrupted by the plot-driving dog named Ava!

Does anything tip the scales from G to PG?

Well, Ava can’t always be there. And once Jacob has reconciled with his father, and once Jacob and Rachel have set out into yet another snowstorm together, and once the storm forces them to find an inn, and once that inn has only one room, and once the inn serves them a five-star room service dinner, well, you know what time it is: implied sex with sun-dappled morning-after regret time. Because, oh yeah, Rachel is still engaged, and while Netflix may have the moral leniency to depict tongue-kissing before marriage, the company seems to draw the line at adultery.

Did this movie make me cry?

Somewhat unexpectedly, yes. I thought I knew the tear-jerking moment we were all working toward: Rachel meeting her birth mother, at which point I would have held back tears out of spite for pandering. But in a real twist, Rachel decides that Noel’s diary was all the reassurance she needed and that cheating on her nebulous fiancé, Alan, with a hot, famous author who’s super in love with her was a bad idea, and returns home without going to meet Noel. So when Jacob shows up at Noel’s doorstep alone, and introduces himself as the little boy she once cared for during the loss of his brother, it’s actually a really nice moment, made all the nicer and more tear-inducing by the brief cameo from Essence Atkins, who I cannot believe is now old enough to play this role. Executive producer Justin Hartley (surprise!) wasn’t messing around with casting.

What is the meaning of Christmas, as stated by the film?

Jacob says “the universe rewards the brave” no less than five times in this film, and I guess that ultimately is the meaning of Christmas: saying an unattributed quote around someone enough so that when you repeat it back to them during a soaring, rain-soaked monologue, they have no choice but to leave their fiancé for you.