"Santa Girl" is ridiculous and I appreciate it
LET'S! TALK! ABOUT! DEVON! WERKHEISER!
This may come as a surprise to you, but I have standards when choosing my cheesy Christmas movies. I mean, I have no interest in the genre outside of writing about it for this newsletter, so I do select the ones that look the funniest, but I have a few parameters there. For example, I’ve been crossing anything that involved Santa off my watch list because I’m an adult woman and don’t want to deal with Santa Claus mythology in my rom-coms. I prefer real issues, like cursed ghosts and time-travelers.
And then I happened to come across the premise for Santa Girl, and that premise is that Santa’s daughter wants to go to college but he wants her to agree to an arranged marriage with Jack Frost’s son. So. Obviously I had to give that one a shot.
I pressed play and got a delightful surprise in the opening credits: Devon Werkheiser is in this! Devon Werkheiser, OF COURSE, played the title character on Nickelodeon’s Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide, which was easily my favorite show of that era. I haven’t seen him in anything since, but he was a fantastic kid actor and I hadn’t realized how much I missed him until I screamed at my own TV screen when reminded of his existence. “Oh, HELL yeah!” I shouted in my empty apartment, because I spent this weekend alone bingeing Christmas rom-coms and drinking eggnog lattes. I am apparently morphing into a real-life version of a Christmas-loving TV movie protagonist. I hope this means I get a ghost to love!
Anyway, the protagonist of this TV movie is Cassandra Claus, the 18-year-old daughter of Santa Claus. I would have called it Santa’s Baby, for what it’s worth. She’s grown up at the North Pole and secretly applied to college (it’s never specified which one) to see what the real world is like. Cassie’s pretty bitchy to all the elves who wait on her in her enormous castle mansion, especially the truly adorable Pep, her personal handmaiden-type elf. Cassie is sarcastic and annoying, which she presumably comes by naturally because her father is a scowling asshole. The Santa in this universe is a big corporate CEO who barks orders and yells about quarterly earnings in a suit and tie. He signed a contract after his daughter’s birth ensuring that she would wed Jack Frost, Jr. on the Christmas Eve after she turns 18 to merge Kringle Industries with Jack Frost’s company. This merger is necessary, he says, “so Christmas can continue forever.” It is not explained further. It’s unclear what Jack Frost does. Maybe he just makes it cold? If so, climate change is threatening his business model regardless. Also, I don’t know why they didn’t just merge the companies then and there when signing that contract 18 years ago.
Cassie blindsides her dad with the news that she got into college, and he eventually decides to allow it because his late wife always wanted Cassie to get an education. I guess that Mrs. Claus didn’t have a say in that arranged marriage contract, and also I guess that Santa had forgotten about the education thing up until now. Santa says that Cassie can go to one semester of college in the real world, but then she has to come back to marry Jack Frost Jr., who she’s never even met.
I’m on board up to this point! This premise in bonkers in the best way, the dialogue is far above average for the genre, and it’s all zipping along with the potential to be ridiculous and fun. And then it starts to fall apart a bit.
Cassie goes off to Whatever College (home of the Fighting Collegiates!) with Pep posing as her “roommate” to keep an eye on her. Pep neglects to hide her big giant elf ears, something that I assumed would cause some kind of wacky incident, but no! She just has elf ears the whole movie and walks all over the University of College campus and no one says anything!
Cassie is a big sparkling bundle of joy everywhere she goes, which is confusing because she was so surly in all previous scenes. I guess she was supposed to seem repressed at the North Pole, but it really feels like she’s a completely new character at College. For example, we previously saw Pep struggling to understand Cassie’s sarcasm, but now it’s Cassie who doesn’t understand sarcasm as a repeated punchline. It’s a weird oversight.
Her jolly disposition results in goth girls getting irritated by her cheer and boys finding her charming in a manic-elf-dream-girl kind of way. She has some magic that she uses from time to time to make things zany, and she doesn’t know how phones work or that real people don’t eat cupcakes for lunch. How silly! It’s all very Elf Light. She leans on the vague excuse “We don’t have that back where I’m from!” anytime someone calls her on her weirdness, but I think it’d be better if she created a more solid backstory. She should say that she was raised in a cult and only escaped recently. That would explain everything except the magic and her roommate’s ears.
But I’m getting lost in the weeds here, because the main point of the plot is ROMANCE, and that starts with a meet-cute. I’m noticing that the trend for this genre is a clumsy incident. The Spirit of Christmas had Kate get so startled by the trespassing ghost that she bumped into a shelf and knocked a vase onto her head. The Knight Before Christmas saw Vanessa Hudgens walk right into Sir Cole and spill hot chocolate all over his armor.
Santa Girl uses a fairly cliche injury: some blond dude throwing a frisbee that hits Cassie and knocks her backwards. I feel like I’ve seen that on Zoey 101 or something. The blond dude is named J.R. and he’s the worst. The actor has the opposite of charisma, a presence onscreen that actively repelled me. Every time he said something romantic, I involuntarily yelled “Ew!” at my TV. He’s just awful. He flirts awkwardly with Cassie as they walk to the school bookstore together, and WE FINALLY GET DEVON WERKHEISER!
Ahhhh! There he is!! His character is pleading with an employee to let him put his books on hold until his financial aid kicks in. Cassie, who’s never had to use human money before, gladly steps in to hand him $500 and bops off, thinking nothing of it. This guy will later find her on campus to thank her profusely and introduce himself as Sam. Hmmm, I thought, What’s the twist here? What does “Sam” stand for? He could be Jack Frost, Jr. undercover, but why “Sam?” Is he a rival mythical creature? What will the reveal be?
J.R. tries to get Sam to back off like this is a love triangle when J.R. is a sentient mannequin and Sam is an absolute fountain of charisma. There’s no competition here. And then guess what, guys. There’s a huge reveal that J.R. is actually Jack Frost, Jr. I was so mad at myself. I was puzzling over “Sam” trying to figure out if it was a fucking acronym or something and all along the twist was that Jr. was J.R. Duh! I didn’t even think to parse his name because I assumed from the shitty casting that this dude was going to be a very minor character.
Turns out that J.R. is there to make sure that Cassie doesn’t fall for any other boy and bail on the family merger contract. So he keeps hitting on Cassie, and Cassie has to keep saying that she can’t go out with him because she’s actually committed to someone else. This is unnecessarily complicated! He should have just said up front that he was Jack Frost, Jr. and she could say “Oh, you’re my fiancé? Well, you’re not so bad! Let’s go steady and talk about North Pole stuff.” But instead, she tells him that they have to remain friends, allowing her to also get close to Sam. Sam is great. Devon Werkheiser is GREAT. Y’all! He’s so great! I really can’t stress it enough — he is absolutely fantastic in this role. Why haven’t we cast Devon Werkheiser in everything?? Why isn’t he a huge star?! Why won’t he marry me, Allison, specifically??!?!?! I’M TELLING YOU HE IS VERY, VERY GOOD IN THIS MOVIE.
So there’s kind of a love triangle thing happening, where Cassie clearly has feelings for both guys. Sam is hilarious and sweet and perfect, and J.R. is supposed to be sort of blandly handsome but uninteresting. But it’s not really much of a love triangle since J.R. is such a dud. It’s like Twilight if Bella had to choose between Edward Cullen and an old vacuum cleaner.
To add yet another unnecessary plot twist to the movie, Jack Frost himself shows up to offer Sam money to keep an eye on Cassie and report back to him about her. This straight-up makes no sense, and not just because Sam doesn’t notice that Jack Frost is clearly some kind of winter demon in a business suit.
Sam has a mild ethical dilemma about taking the money, but he needs it, and he just continues hanging out with Cassie like he already did. He ends up developing feelings for her and asking her out, which should be the opposite of what Jack Frost wants!
Cassie’s continued objections that she’s “not available” frustrate Sam and lead to a big emotional argument. Here I would again suggest that she lean on the story of being raised in a cult, or a far simpler excuse like being a lesbian. But instead she discloses that she’s in an arranged marriage to help her dad, who is Santa, and Sam assumes she’s messing with him and gets mad. It’s very contrived, and Cassie doesn’t think to do any of the magic stuff that would at least prove that she is, in fact, a Santa Girl.
Spoiler alert: it all works out but also double spoiler alert: Cassie ends up having to marry J.R. on Christmas Eve, as the contract dictated, and she considers backing out. And then, because his motivations make NO SENSE, Jack Frost shows up before the wedding to ominously say, “You better go through with this, because if you violate the contract then my company gets all of Kringle Industries.” Wouldn’t that be a best-case scenario for him? Why did he bend over backwards to get this girl to the altar? If anything, he should have paid Sam to woo Cassie away from J.R. so she breaks the contract! Maybe that was in the first draft of the script but they decided it made Sam look bad.
Let’s…. talk about that script. This would be an above-average Disney Channel Original Movie, but it had the potential to be legitimately good! Not like an Oscar contender or anything, but something fun and solidly rewatchable. It’s ridiculous in a good way at the beginning, and the jokes are often well-written. Pep is a great character, played absolutely hilariously by relative newcomer McKayla Witt. The lead actress, Jennifer Stone, is fine. She was apparently on Wizards of Waverly Place, but I’m a decrepit old millennial so my knowledge of kid’s shows stops with Ned’s Declassified. And Barry Bostwick acts the hell out of Santa Claus, actually managing to convey grief and fatherly affection under his harsh exterior. I didn’t know who Barry Bostwick was, because I’m just a baby millennial who only knows stuff like Ned’s Declassified, so I looked him up and he was Brad in Rocky Horror Picture Show! He also originated the role of Danny Zuko on Broadway! He was nominated for a Tony and won one later! This man just shot to the top of my list of favorite actors who’ve played Santa Claus, probably because the only other one I can think of right now is Tim Allen.
The problem is that this movie is trying to be an adventurous fantasy caper when it should be To All The Boys I Loved Before My Christmas Arranged Marriage. It just needs to be a classic boy-meets-Santa-girl! All of Jack Frost’s machinations could be cut entirely and the movie would make more sense and have space to explore the central romance. I’m sorry to say that some recasting would elevate this a bit, as our Cassie is fine but doesn’t reach Devon Werkheiser’s level. He’s playing a character trope here, the lovesick and slightly nerdy best friend — a Duckie or Gordo or Chase Matthews type — and he sells every line, even the corny ones, in a natural and charming performance. In comparison, Cassie feels a little flat, and their chemistry never fully clicks. Her characterization doesn’t go much beyond “sweet” when she should have more quirky magnetism. Cutting out J.R. entirely would help develop that, though. The whole conflict should just be that Cassie likes Sam but she can’t tell him because she’s engaged! Simple enough!
Oh, and there’s also a very cringeworthy “old screenwriters try to write youthful memes” subplot that absolutely needs to be cut.
Maybe this is a bad movie and I’ve just been distracted by Devon Werkheiser?
I don’t know! It’s all over the place! There’s a little bit of “spoiled rich girl learns about how the other half lives” thrown in, but it’s abandoned pretty immediately, probably because Cassie’s privilege comes from being the magical heir to the Santa Claus empire and there’s only so much you can do with that. The intersection of Santa Claus and capitalism was never fully explored. Both the Claus and Frost families have a ton of money, but why? After a (spoiler!) heartwarming ending, Santa tells his daughter that he’s been so caught up in running the business that he forgot that Christmas is about making children happy with all the presents. No shit, Santa! YOU OF ALL PEOPLE cannot forget about the delivering presents bit! What the hell is the “business side” of the job? Does Santa charge parents for presents? If so, why have all the students at College University grown up thinking that Santa isn’t real? How will they know to pay Santa for their own children’s presents? If a movie posits that Santa is real, ALL human parents have to be on board or the mechanics break down. This is why I try to avoid Santa movies! The mythology is a mess!
Oh, also, the movie ends with a country song called “Just a Girl” over the credits and the lyrics are like “I remember when my dad used to take me flying in his sleigh but now I’m in college” and it’s hilarious. The only way it could be better is if it were called “Not a Santa Girl, Not Yet a Santa Woman.”
Was this movie terrible or amazing? Amazing in a lot of ways! Terrible in ways that can be ignored if you’re up to it!
Was this movie romantic? Not really, other than the romance you will imagine between yourself and Devon Werkheiser.
Do I recommend this movie? Sure! It’s cheery and silly and a perfectly fine option to throw on if your family likes cheesy movies. Also, I want more people to appreciate Devon Werkheiser so he gets more work. Give him his own show! I’d be fine with him in a reboot like Ned’s #Adulting Life Survival Guide, except that the actress who played Moze is now a Trump supporter who doesn’t believe in climate change. So let’s not go there. Give Devon Werkheiser a new Netflix series! A leading role like Penn Badgley’s in You, one that makes people say “Oh yeah! Him! I love him.” Or add him to an ensemble sitcom like New Girl and let him be hilarious and charming! I want him to be more famous and star in big movies like Zac Efron. I want him to ask me on a date. These are ALL honors he deserves. My takeaway from Santa Girl is that I’m grateful to Santa Girl for bringing Devon Werkheiser back into my life!