‘Tis the season for holiday movies, and filmmaker Christin Baker and Tello Films (an LGBTQ+ women’s focused production, distribution company, and VOD platform launched by Baker in 2009) have been working to bring queer women to the forefront of the holiday rom-com over the past few years, with 2019’s Season of Love and 2020’s I Hate New Year’s. This festive season, Baker takes us on a trip to Nashville, with lessons in discovering the life you need and finding the love that’s right for you, in Christmas at the Ranch.
The film’s co-writer, Julie Anton originally pitched the premise to Tello Films back in 2018, which led to a collaboration between her and Baker on the screenplay. It’s the story of urban power broker Haley (Laur Allen), who was raised by her grandmother, Meemaw (The Bionic Woman legend Lindsay Wagner), after the death of her parents. She hasn’t been back to her family’s Nashville ranch in years, but is summoned by her brother, Charles (Archie Kao), in a last-ditch effort to save their beloved land from the bank. Waiting for her when she reluctantly returns is a family crisis, ghosts from the past…and a new love interest.
It is everything you’d want from a Christmas rom-com; the going home for the holidays, the fight to save something important, and of course a romance. Haley’s introduction to Kate (Amanda Righetti) on a dating app does not go well and to make matters worse she discovers that the Kate works as a ranch hand for her family, but the pair are soon forced to put their differences aside and band together to save the homestead.
Christmas at the Ranch unfolds with heartwarming lessons in being where you need to be in life, connecting with family, and of course finding love, with a gorgeous backdrop of the Nashville ranch, a beautiful score by Everett Young, and a soulful original soundtrack featuring songs by Dia Frampton and Dominique Provost-Chalkley. It’s everything you could want in a Christmas movie, and at its heart are two women falling in love.
Director and co-writer Christin Baker is dedicated to the art of the holiday rom-com and her two previous films in the genre, similarly capture the charm of the festive season, including many of those rom-com tropes we all love, but with queer women at the heart of the stories.
When it came to Christmas at the Ranch it was the chance to play with those tropes that appealed to Chritsin Baker, as she tells The Queer Review’s Emily Garside: “What drew me to this story was that wonderful holiday rom-com trope of ‘city girl goes to the country’, and the idea of having that play out with two queer women was a no-brainer, especially with a cowgirl and horses and all that great stuff!”
As with any good rom-com, the romance is at the heart of the film, but a great ingredient in any holiday movie is a chance to reflect upon one’s life, something that feels so apt at this time of year. “I think what is universal in the film is not just the love story, but also the family and coming home aspect that anyone can relate to”, Baker continues. “Finding out that where you are in life and where you think you should be is not making you happy, and in fact where you think you shouldn’t be is really what’s going to make you happy in the end.”
As Haley realizes that she wants to fight for the family ranch, she also begins to look at her place in the world and to question what she’s doing with her life. So while we know that, yes, there will likely be a happy ending, we also see some satisfying, honest character growth too. Baker is also keen for her characters, queer and otherwise, to feel like real, flawed humans, particularly her female characters who don’t get that treatment, particularly in the rom-com genre. “Some men who have written women have portrayed them as unbelievably two-dimensional”, observes Baker, “where the male characters are the ones who have all these really interesting things that happen to them and I just really love complex, three-dimensional women, so that will always be part of anything that I’m doing.”
Christmas at the Ranch achieves that effectively with both Kate and Haley being flawed women who act unsympathetically at times, something that makes both the family dynamic, and also the romance, feel more authentic too; human flaws and all.
Showing flawed, complex women is something we need to strive for generally on screen, and that Baker is doing so with queer women finding romance in her films feels hugely important for the LGBTQ+ community. We’ve seen huge strides in queer representation across film and TV in recent years, but to some extent, we’re stuck in a cycle of narratives. Baker was keen to offset this with these heartwarming rom-coms, featuring women at ease with themselves, dating happily (just like in a straight rom-com), which she describes as “the evolution of stories about queer women. Not to suggest that coming out stories couldn’t still be made today, or aren’t important, but they’re not the only stories that we have to tell.”
Christmas at the Ranch, along with Baker’s previous queer lady rom-coms, move beyond that cycle of stories about trauma and coming out, while offering intelligent, layered, and diverse women-led narratives. That feels hugely refreshing in any genre. That they’re happy holiday movies that also bring joy…is the frosting on the Christmas cake.
“I think it’s a natural evolution to have that straight-up fantastic holiday rom-com that the straight community has had for years, but we’re just catching up to that because our stories are starting to be told more frequently.”
The rom-com itself is an often under-appreciated art form. It’s incredibly formulaic of course, but working with that formula is where the skill lies. We all know how a good rom-com is going to end, so what we need are characters we can root for. It doesn’t matter if the premise is slightly far-fetched, as long as we have people to cheer for, and that’s what Baker has achieved with all three of her holiday rom-coms.
In Season of Love, we meet three couples as they lives intersect—Iris (Emily Goss), Mardou (Laur Allen), Lou (Jessica Clark), Kenna (Sandra Mae Frank), Janey (Janelle Marie), and Sue (Dominique Provost-Chalkley)—while they prepare for the holidays and cope with an array of issues, from everyday work challenges, to family caring responsibilities, to imploding relationships. We’re drawn to them as people and want to watch their stories play out, and that we get to do that with a neat holiday bow—and queer women getting that closing montage kiss—is the stuff of queer holiday movie dreams.
Meanwhile in I Hate New Year’s starring Dia Frampton, Ashley Argota, and Candis Cayne, Baker takes us on a road trip around Nashville with two young country music stars. It’s a musical dream of a movie that’s self-aware and offers a (literal) knowing wink to the audience, and yes, a kiss between our female leads. It’s the kind of film you watch on New Year’s Eve to avoid New Year’s and live out your best rom-com fantasy life instead. This is exactly what queer women deserve as much as anyone else. That shouldn’t feel revolutionary, but in the season where some channels fill an entire month with different holiday movies, there are only a handful that have queer women in lead roles, so to have Baker creating these films is revolutionary.
Things are changing, but not quite fast enough, as Baker surveys the queer rom-com landscape. “I think there are three new films this year, one of which is actually an ensemble with three couples, including a lesbian couple which is great, then the other two have female leads. But I was really hoping we would have more this year than last year, and that hasn’t happened.”
So what we need is more movies like Christmas at the Ranch and Season of Love and I Hate New Year’s, because these three films, which are all different, with very different women at the heart of them, all offer the same crucial thing; some queer feel-good joy and a romantic kiss. And don’t we all want that for the holidays?
By Dr Emily Garside
Christmas at the Ranch is available to stream internationally at Tello Films now, along with I Hate New Years and Season of Love.
I am very happy to see that the lesbian community is finally getting more space in pop culture in a non-fetishized way.
I already knew Christin Baker’s work and I very much hope that she inspires more film and series producers to contribute more and more to a less heteronormative and more inclusive pop culture.