"The Christmas Heart," a TV movie premiering at 8 p.m. Sunday on the Hallmark Channel, has a boy with a severe heart problem, a death in an auto accident, a birth, a major snowstorm, a bumpy aircraft flight, a power failure, tears and prayers.

Executive produced by Patricia Heaton, and written by her brother, Cleveland Plain Dealer scribe Michael Heaton, the film is set in what Hallmark calls "a homey suburb of Cleveland." Michael Heaton says the town is Lakewood, where he used to live.

There are allusions to the Cavaliers, the Cleveland Clinic and Burke Lakefront Airport, not to mention the perils of a Northeast Ohio winter, even if those names and places are sometimes said with obviously Canadian accents. The movie was shot up north earlier this year.

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The story includes elements that will be familiar from other Christmas fare. It follows the Norman family - the father in which is Mike, another name that will echo with Plain Dealer readers - during a series of crises.

The bad economy is causing business problems for Mike (played by Paul Essiembre), but that's nothing to what he and wife Ann (Teri Polo) must endure when their 15-year-old son Matt (Ty Wood) falls ill and will die unless he receives a heart transplant.

Matt's illness affects not only his family, but also their neighbors, whose plans to celebrate the holiday season are suddenly in question. Meanwhile, in Detroit, another family is in crisis as the young loser Jimmy Mars (Adam Hurtig) is trying to deal with some serious gambling debts, his girlfriend's pregnancy and the constant disappointment he has been to his mother (Tess Harper).

As big a mess as Jimmy has been, he may be able to spare the Normans further agony. That is, if the snowstorm doesn't get in the way.

Expect no surprises from "The Christmas Heart," a movie that establishes very quickly the road it will take and then earnestly, and at times cornily, goes its merry way with no message left either unsaid or understated. (The Normans' younger son is put to repeated, annoying use in that area.)

The middle is especially draggy, and the attempts at comic relief only so-so.

But neither is "The Christmas Heart" free of pleasure, particularly in some of the acting.

There's real anguish in some of the scenes with Polo and Essiembre, and Harper is as excellent as ever.

If you are willing to surrender to its unabashed sentimentality, you may find reason for a sniffle or two, and maybe a reason to smile at the end.


'The Christmas Heart'

Starring Paul Essiembre, Teri Polo, Tess Harper, Ty Wood

8 p.m. Sunday

Hallmark Channel

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