'Winterfest' movie review: 'Winter Love Story'

'Winterfest' movie review: 'Winter Love Story'

The instant and undeniable chemistry between co-leads Jen Lilley and Kevin McGarry fills the Hallmark Winterfest movie "Winter Love Story" (premiering Jan. 19) with a buoyant charm for this delightful romantic road trip.

In short: First-time romance memoir author Cassie (Lilley) is paired up with acclaimed fantasy writer Elliot (McGarry) for a book tour.

All these Hallmark movies are "girl meets boy - and they fall in love," but like the very best Hallmark movies, "Winter Love Story" puts Cassie's story as a rookie novelist front and center. From its adorable "meet cute," it leans into the inevitability that Cassie and Elliot will end up together (always a foregone conclusion in these movies) - which spares the audience pointless "will they or won't they" friction for most of the movie.

This leaves room for what matters to "Love Story" - in this case, it's a rookie author with stage fright blossoming into a confident writer. Cassie's growth drives the story forward and Lilley shines as a plucky and green novelist. Cassie is the every woman reluctantly thrust into the spotlight, pinned between her comfort zone and doing what it takes to follow her dream. Joanna Douglas and Mary-Margaret Humes are great as her best friend and renowned author mother. Her friend nudges Cassie to push herself, acting as a cheerleader and actively encouraging her fledgling novelist "bestie." It's the little things that Lilley does - like visibly try a bit too hard during an interview and nervously stumble through a public appearance - that makes her performance way too relateable. Even when Cassie is uncomfortable, Lilley's performance exudes an underlying charm and quick wit - traits that only give Cassie credibility as she matures as a published writer.

"Winter Love Story" glides wonderfully so long as it prioritizes Cassie's story as an emerging author -- but it stumbles toward the end as the film conjures a rather clunky, last-minute plot turn that threatens to keep Cassie and Elliot apart. And it's here where the movie abandons its strengths, and settles to wrest its story on one of the more tired Hallmark tropes - that of "an assumption that leads to a misunderstanding." Thankfully, "Winter Love" recovers with a sweet conclusion that brings the story full circle.

Final verdict: Lilley and McGarry's undeniable spark keeps "Winter Love Story" a sweet and light journey - but it's Cassie's growth on-screen that keeps the film interesting.

Score: 4-out-of-5 snowflakes

"Winter Love Story" premieres on Hallmark Channel Jan. 19 and will play throughout Winterfest. This romance is rated TV-G and has a running time of 2 hours.

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