February 27, 2020 Carol of the Bells (Movie Review)
With all the bad news in the world it can be comforting to know some people still have their hearts in the right place. Joey Travolta (Beverly Hills Cop III 1994, Navajo Blues 1996) set up Inclusion Films in 2007 to help people with special needs get into filmmaking. Through this company, he and his staff have shown that development difficulties are not an impediment to a film career, producing movies like 2008’s Sweet Sixteen and 2010’s Spud to rather favorable receptions.
Their latest offering, Carol of the Bells, is the first film where 70% of the crew has a developmental disability- including lead stars RJ Mitte (Breaking Bad series, Isaac 2021) and Andrea F. Friedman (Law & Order: SVU series, Family Guy series). It won the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature at the San Diego International Film Festival on October 19, 2019, and now everyone will be able to catch it on DVD and Digital platforms on March 3, 2020 through High Octane Pictures. But what is it about?
Directed by Travolta and written by J.C Peterson (POP-U-larity! 2012, S&M Sally 2015), it tells the story of Scott Johnson (Mitte). He tries to track down his biological mother as a way of dealing with his troubled past. However, things take a turn when he discovers his birth mom is a developmentally disabled woman named Carol (Friedman). Unable to handle the situation, it is up to his wife Karen (Yuly Mireles: Chance 2016, Blindspotting 2018) to drive him to accept the truth and move on from the past.
It certainly sounds dramatic enough, especially as it comes from a personal place given Inclusion Films’ goal. The film may have heart, but does it have the skills to back it up? The technical quality has its own ups and downs. The introduction goes for the fanciest camera tricks, though looks a little muddled for it with its quick cuts and aerial views. The rest of the film is more workman-like, akin to a TV movie or series with its establishing shots. However, this does not interfere with the film’s storytelling, keeping things coherent scene by scene. So, there are no serious problems there.
The grown-ups in the film, including Donna Pescow (Saturday Night Fever 1977, Angie series), turn in some solid performances. Mitte’s performance as the anxious Scott working through old traumas certainly fits the bill, if a little melodramatic in places. Mireles, however, delivers perhaps the best performance of the film, balancing out her character’s understanding nature with the stress of working through the family’s issues. Her character essentially pulls the story’s elements together, and her performance successfully pulls that off.
Though Friedman gives her a run for her money as Carol, coming off as quite sweet and sympathetic. She wants something so simple as love and family, despite that being seemingly difficult for others to give. The story does a good job showing the stigma against people with these conditions- whether they find it difficult to accept them like Scott, or overly protective and controlling of them like Carol’s mother Helen (Donna Mills: Play Misty for Me 1971, Knots Landing series).
Maybe it is the Christmas setting, the plinky-plonky piano music during emotional scenes, or the cutesy little boy hoping his dad would get him a tree for the holidays, but Carol of the Bells really tugs at the cheese-strings alongside the heart-strings. The drama surrounding the main plot feels genuine, and the film in general does not feel like it comes from a cynical place – like there are more than Lifetime-style profits behind it. So, it might be enough for the hardest hearts to acknowledge the sentiment behind the Stilton.
Ultimately, Carol of the Bells is sentimental and the opposite of gritty. However, it is put together well, has some good drama backed up by plenty of heart, and has some solid performances in it. The film is perhaps best suited to those more open to some heart-string twiddling, but cynics can appreciate that it is another success story for Inclusion Films and their commendable goals. Thus, for these reasons, Cryptic Rock gives Carol of the Bells 3.5 out of 5 stars.