Walking into the screening of “Last Christmas,” I hoped for something better than a formulaic Nicholas Sparks film. It’s co-written by Emma Thompson after all, and with Paul Feig (“Bridesmaids”) in the director’s chair, so it has the potential to rise above that bar.

Starring Emilia Clarke as the selfish and stubborn Kate, the film does not disappoint. With the right doses of sentimentality, humor and one big unexpected turn, “Last Christmas” will find its way into your heart.

We meet young Kate singing in a church choir, her voice simply angelic, and her proud parents in the audience adoringly approving of their soloist. Fast forward to a bar in London where the adult version isn’t quite so angelic.

Kate is a woman who shuns her family, makes a lot of bad decisions, and takes little responsibility for herself in life. She dreams big, but at the detriment of her own well-being.

Then a young man, Tom (Henry Golding) enters the picture, but there’s something different about this adorable guy who is always looking up which gives her a different viewpoint in life.

This is Kate’s story. It’s about her past, her relationships with family and friends, and her choices. We find out about her illness from years ago and how that has impacted not just her, but her sister and her parents. She is filled with pride and rash decisions, again to her detriment, and doesn’t seem to understand the mess her actions have left behind.

We all know a “Kate” in our lives as they’ve touched down like a tornado and left just the chaos behind. The story is somewhat predictable as Kate progresses through that narrative arc of growth, but it is the chemistry between she and all those she touches that breathes a new life into a familiar story.

Kate works at a Christmas shop run by Santa (Michelle Yeoh) giving this melodramatic film a great sense of humor supported primarily by Yeoh’s witty delivery. Even within Kate’s immigrant and dysfunctional family, we find humor in her relationship with her mother, Petra (Thompson), her sister Marta (Lydia Leonard), and her downtrodden father.

The film has almost every representation of relationships possible, giving Kate a wide birth to plow through and effect. “Last Christmas” even touches upon social issues of homelessness and immigration, a bit too heavy-handedly, but it’s all a part of Kate’s backstory and current growth.

Clarke’s ability to carry a film is undeniable as is evidenced by her lead role in “Game of Thrones,” but with “Last Christmas,” she demonstrates a wider ability to portray a troubled and conflicted young woman, searching for answers within herself and coming up empty.

Her cherubic face and infectious smile connect you with her character immediately, even when she’s making inadvertently poor decisions. Her small stature accentuated by her hilarious work uniform of a green elf outfit complete with curly toed bell shoes can’t stifle her strength and determination.

There’s a physicality to her performance that allows the audience to better know her character which, even when the film’s story gets muddled in the middle, we are still engaged.

Golding equals Clarke’s energy in a yin-yang fashion. His understated portrayal of Tom gives his character a type of levity with an outlook on life that is different and uplifting — perfect for the upcoming holiday season —with a touch of troubled remorse.

Surprisingly, the two characters don’t have a lot of on-screen time, but the effects are impactful. By the end of the film, I felt that the rug had been pulled out from under me, never seeing what was ahead, and tears streaming down my cheeks. This unexpected romantic comedy is like no other in its genre.

Of course, the music is a big part of the film paying homage to George Michael throughout the film. You’ll never hear the song “Last Christmas” in the same way again. “Last Christmas” breaks through the mold of typical romantic comedies with a dramatic edge allowing you to forgive its sluggish pace in the middle of the story.

3 stars

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