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‘The Noel Diary’ rejects holiday rom-com absurdity, fails to deliver memorable plot, characters

Film starring Justin Hartley, Barrett Doss doubles down on tragic character backstories, lacks joy of standard Netflix fluff-pieces

Rachel Campbell (Barrett Doss) emotionally and physically cheats on her fiancé with Jacob Turner (Justin Hartley), creating another aspect of the movie that audiences can’t overlook.

Courtesy of Netflix Tudum
Rachel Campbell (Barrett Doss) emotionally and physically cheats on her fiancé with Jacob Turner (Justin Hartley), creating another aspect of the movie that audiences can’t overlook. Courtesy of Netflix Tudum

Amidst the arrival of the holiday season, Netflix has been filling its roster of new releases with more and more cliché Christmas titles — including “The Noel Diary,” a film starring Justin Hartley and Barrett Doss of “This is Us” and “Station 19” fame, respectively. Based on a quasi-autobiographical, romantic novella of the same name, “The Noel Diary” fails to stand out from Netflix’s growing list of holiday movies, despite the film’s rejection of typical rom-com tropes.

“The Noel Diary” starts with Jacob Turner (Justin Hartley), a successful novelist who is preparing to spend yet another holiday season alone. The movie takes quite an unfortunate turn early on when Turner receives a call informing him that his mother has passed away, prompting him to return to his small hometown to take care of her estate. While at home, Turner meets Rachel Campbell (Barrett Doss), who is searching for her birth mother — a woman she believes once worked as a nanny for the Turners. Together, Turner and Campbell go on a multi-day road trip that slowly builds their relationship. As Turner is forced to confront his absent father, Campbell searches for any semblance of a connection to her own lineage.

For audiences looking for a typical holiday rom-com, “The Noel Diary” will certainly disappoint. The movie fails to welcome the absurdity of many other romantic comedies. Instead, “The Noel Diary” often attempts to distance itself from the genre, such as when Turner pokes fun at the two-people-single-bed rom-com trope. But the film feels stale because it refuses to embrace the absurdity of this style of film, which audiences often love watching because of how bad the movies are. “The Noel Diary” ultimately ends up being unenjoyable and simply bad.

The movie’s creative decisions also make little sense. There are enough dramatic montages throughout the film — of Jacob’s childhood bedroom, a solemn graveyard, the cluttered mess of the Turner home — that are overlaid by slap-you-in-the-face sad music to fill an entire movie on its own. These scenes are overused and lose the little emotional impact that they are supposed to evoke in viewers.


Turner and Campbell’s relationship also makes little sense. There is no accidental circumstance that brings the two characters together and forces them to stay with one another — unlike the unrealistic but enjoyable plot of Netflix’s “Falling for Christmas,” where Lindsay Lohan’s Sierra Belmont is left in the care of Chord Overstreet’s Jack Russell after suffering from memory loss post-skiing accident. In “The Noel Diary,” audience members are left to question what supposedly realistic characters would decide to go on a days-long road trip with someone they have only known for a single day. The film thus becomes more absurd than those like “Falling for Christmas” because it attempts to avoid these storylines.

Perhaps Turner and Campbell’s journey would be more tolerable if their characters were likable. Turner’s persona seems to be based entirely on how exaggeratedly sad his life is. The movie goes from revealing one unfortunate incident in his life to the other — from his lack of current fulfilling relationships to his absent father to his deceased mother and brother. The real holiday miracle in the film seems to be Turner’s ability to find a happy ending with his father — when the two are somehow able to rebuild 35 years of no relationship within a single night. 

Campbell, on the other hand, is far too perfect for her own good. She is somehow fluent in French, German, Italian and Mandarin and has several scenes throughout the movie where she starts singing perfectly, entirely unprovoked. Campbell’s character gets especially old when she continuously goes on rambling monologues about needing to find security and fill a void in her heart.

It is also hard to forget that, as Turner and Campbell fall in love on their journey, Campbell is both emotionally and physically cheating on her fiance Alan (Mike Donovan), who is waiting to plan their engagement party when Campbell returns. The film pushes Alan further and further into the background as the movie progresses, but it's difficult for audiences to look past the fact that Turner and Campbell’s relationship rests on an uneasy foundation.

The acting in the movie similarly suffers from the script’s refusal to embrace traditional rom-com absurdity. The dialogue in “The Noel Diary” is bland and uninteresting. Oftentimes, interactions between the characters feel awkward and uncomfortable — as if the actors weren’t even given a script to go off of. By the film’s end, audiences cannot help but wonder how Hartley and Doss, talented actors who have previously proven their abilities, fell so far from grace.


Alex Nadirashvili

Alex Nadirashvili is the managing editor of multimedia and social media for The Brown Daily Herald's 133rd Editorial Board. As a former University News editor, he covered faculty, higher education and student life, though his proudest legacy is The Brown Daily Herald TikTok account.


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