Twinkling Christmas trees and flickering Hanukkah candles are the illuminating bookends of the Hallmark Channel’s newest seasonal movie, Love, Lights, Hanukkah!
Filmed in Vancouver, but set in Cleveland, Mark Jean’s feel-good movie celebrates not only the miracle of Hanukkah, the Maccabees’ victory over the Syrians, but the miracle of a mother connecting with a long lost daughter.
Mia Kirshner (full disclosure: she’s my daughter) turns in a radiant performance as Christina Rossi, the owner of an Italian restaurant. Out of curiosity, she takes a DNA tests, which reveals she’s really half- Jewish and half-Italian-and-Greek.
She stumbles upon her true ancestry at a particularly sad and vulnerable moment. Her foster mother has just died and a four-year relationship with her fiancé has ended. Clearly, Christina needs to fill the yawning gaps in her life. But, as she readily admits, “I don’t know anything about being Jewish.”
Christina is right. Having been raised in the Christian faith, she loves Christmas with all its schmaltzy traditions and knows absolutely nothing about Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. But after meeting her Jewish relatives, who live nearby, Christina discovers a whole new world and a wondrous holiday replete with menorahs, thin colored candles, dreidels, latkes and Hanukkah songs.
Christina’s new-found relatives range from Becky (Advah Soudack), the proprietor of a cafe, to Becky’s mother, Ruth (Marilu Henner), a widow whose favorite time of the year is Hanukkah.
Ruth’s house guest, David Singer (Ben Savage), is an eligible bachelor. He’s also a food critic who once panned Christina’s lasagne as “predictable,” and is now planning a trip to Europe to gather material for a book on cross-cultural cooking.
The nub of the story is when Ruth finds out that Christina is her biological daughter. When she was a 19-year-old exchange student in Italy, she met Giorgio, a dashing young Italian man. Unable or unwilling to raise their child, she gave up Christina for adoption. Sophia, her foster mother, brought her up with love and care.
The revelation shakes Christina to her core. She’s happy to have met Ruth, who treats her like a daughter, but fond memories of Sophia burn brightly. Nonetheless, Christina gladly accepts Ruth’s invitation to attend a festive Hanukkah meal, where she learns about the holiday.
Later, in a time-honored tradition reserved for mothers and daughters, Ruth and Christina whip up a batch of latkes. Henner is convincing as a mother who desperately wants to bond with her offspring.
The film is fleshed out around this theme. Just as a small quantity of oil miraculously lit up the temple’s menorah for eight days, so a miraculous reunion occurred when Ruth and Christina serendipituously crossed paths.
Yet this is not the only joyful moment in Jean’s competently-crafted, though somewhat formulaic movie. David is romantically drawn to Christina, who’s searching for a soulmate. Though hesitant about his overtures, she cares about him. Savage portrays David in a pleasant and disarming manner, but the chemistry between him and Christina is practically nonexistent.
As the films heads toward its denouement, Christina lights a menorah for the first time and chalks it up as a wonderful experience. “Is Hanukkah always this much fun?” she asks incredulously.
There is another surprise in store, and when it unfolds it packs an emotional wallop. In the Christmas spirit, Love, Lights, Hanukkah! spreads ecumenical tidings of joy, signing off, appropriately enough, with a universal “merry Hanukkah” greeting.