In many ways, Dolly Parton is already a full-fledged Guardian Angel: a prolific, glitter-covered deity who helped bring the COVID-19 vaccine to the masses and also gave us ‘Jolene’. But in Unlikely angel, the criminally underrated Christmas movie made for television, it literally becomes one. Twenty-five years later, the story of Dolly’s rise still stands – and it just might be what you need this holiday season.
Even before Parton’s character gains her wings, she is an icon. Ruby Diamond wears skin-tight leather skirts for her nanny job, plays strapless guitar, and can mesmerize a whole bar of extinct middle-aged men. Still, she isn’t in the best place at the start of the movie. Diamond performs in a disgusting bar, catches her boyfriend cheating on her, then quickly dies in a car crash after a deer rushes down the road. But that’s just the start for her.
The singer now deceased almost climbs to the Gates of Heaven, but is stopped by Saint Peter (Roddy McDowall), who tells her point blank that if she hadn’t saved this deer’s life, she would have gone straight to Hell. Diamond, he says, spent her whole life saying and doing whatever she wanted, regardless of anyone else. (While this is the kind of life that I personally strive for, it’s not the kind that is rewarded by the Bible.) Rather than apologize or feel ashamed, Diamond laughs. She knows she wasn’t perfect, but who was? Luckily, Saint Peter gives Diamond a chance to enter God’s kingdom – if she can help mend a broken family, the Bartilsons, before the clock strikes midnight on Christmas Day.
Diamond came back down to Earth, disguised as a nanny. Upon arrival, it is immediately clear that his assigned family is not in great shape. The father, a recent widower, completely ignores his children. The daughter, Sarah (Allison Mack) actively rebels, and the son, Matthew (Eli Marienthal) is lost in grief. Diamond brings a much needed lightness to their home, baking cookies and singing holiday tunes and even flirting with the dad – although he’s been specifically asked not to. (Whenever she’s excited, the heavens shake the Earth, or Saint Peter drops a Bible near her to remind her to stay the course.)
Christmas movies are often imbued with some sort of moral message. It’s a wonderful life is enjoying what you have; 34th Street Miracle is to embrace the magic of childhood; How the Grinch Stole Dr Seuss Christmas is to be kind to those who are different from you. The lesson of Unlikely angel – a film about managing loss – is just as profound, especially right now. There are no Scrooges or Grinches, only the lingering effects of grief. It seems oddly radical to show something so simple, so common, like a family struggling to cope with loss. Under such circumstances, even the most well-meaning families go through a rough time, and it can be difficult to see a light at the end of the tunnel – especially since most people don’t have a Dolly Parton to show them. the way outside.
You could come to Unlikely angel for the cheesy CGI and Christmas cookie decorating scene, but you’ll stick around for the tender moments that make the Bartilson family so real – well that, and the scene where Dolly Parton sings with a choir of angels.