Trading places is as much a holiday tradition as mulled wine and mistletoe. From cases of mistaken identity (A Christmas Prince) to identical people swapping roles (The Princess Switch) and lonely hearts switching houses (The Holiday), the trope has long been a hallmark of romantic comedies, family dramas, and Christmas-themed fare that falls somewhere between the two. That such unlikely exchanges often lead to characters gaining much-needed perspective on their lives, love, and family only adds to the warm-hearted charm of these films—especially when said characters find themselves literally trapped in each other’s bodies, thanks to a light sprinkling of Tinseltown magic.
Family Switch, Netflix’s latest holiday release (streaming Nov. 30), follows in the footsteps of Freaky Friday—the ’70s original and the aughts Disney remake—while doubling down on its cosmic body-swapping shenanigans. This time around, the switcheroos befall an entire dysfunctional family, rather than just an at-odds mother and daughter, setting up four actors to deliver comically outsized dual performances of adolescence and middle age.
Chief among those is a delightfully enthusiastic turn by Jennifer Garner, returning to the body-swap genre nearly 20 years after 13 Going on 30. She plays matriarch Jess Walker, who divides her days between family life and her thriving career at a respected architectural firm, struggling to find a balance between the two. Set in Los Angeles, where the sun shines even as Christmas lights adorn the neighborhood, Family Switch opens with Jess and her husband, high school music teacher Bill (The Office’s Ed Helms), decked out in red-and-white Santa Claus regalia. They’re eager to film one of their family’s traditional Christmas-time music videos but unable to even momentarily capture the attention of their children, Yale-bound teenage brainiac Wyatt (Good Boys’ Brady Noon) and rising soccer star CC (Wednesday’s Emma Myers). A family of overachievers, they all appear to be heading in different directions, a realization that gives Jess a particularly sharp pang around the holidays.
During an ill-fated outing to LA’s Griffith Observatory to watch a rare planetary alignment, the Walkers meet an enigmatic astrological reader (Rita Moreno, endearingly mischievous), who sizes up the family’s everyday chaos and tells them sagely to “fix it,” lest they lose sight of themselves and each other. Finding the next day that father and son, mother and daughter, and baby and dog have all magically swapped places, the Walkers must figure out how to survive one of the busiest days of the year, make their way back to their respective bodies and lives, and along the way maybe learn some important lessons about the power of family.
It’s easy to see the appeal that body swapping holds for a pair of actors, granted the rare opportunity to temporarily play each other’s characters, mimicking their body language and innermost states. Whenever parents and teenagers swap places in the movies, any adults in the room are free to unleash their inner child, while their younger co-stars have just as much fun playing twice their age. Fish-out-of-water generational gags abound in Family Switch, as painfully uncool parents infiltrate high school and kids struggle to navigate daily office culture. (“It’s like I’m shrink-wrapped in fiberglass,” quips CC of her mother’s work attire.) The film gets enough mileage out of winking at past body-swap movies—Wyatt, protesting his transformation: “No kid has ever just woken up big!”—without entirely piecing together its story from recognizable parts.
Garner and Myers are especially memorable, capturing the gulf that’s materialized between mother and daughter as well as the abiding love that underpins their mutual frustration. Funny and touching, their chemistry recalls how convincingly Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan played both concerned mother and angst-ridden teenager in Freaky Friday. Garner isn’t on quite the same kind of charm offensive that she was in 13 Going on 30; instead of killing with kindness, she earns big laughs by embracing teendom’s all-consuming exasperation and embarrassment, all the while emanating her trademark, stubborn glow of sincerity. Myers, meanwhile, keys in on the pressurized drive and vulnerability that mother and daughter share. She plays Jess and CC as whole, fully realized characters who are nevertheless dependent on each other’s approval.
Amusingly, less drama results from father and son trading places. Though Wyatt’s interview with Yale ends up derailed, he starts losing interest in New Haven just as soon as he starts making headway with a crush (Vanessa Carrasco)—albeit in his father’s body, which complicates things, though less creepily than one might expect—and the entire family comes improbably to the rescue of Bill’s anticipated performance as the frontman of local rock band Dad or Alive. Both actors are endearing, but they largely cede the spotlight to their co-stars.
Perhaps in acknowledgment of its efforts to enter the Christmas-movie canon and simultaneously carry off a body-switch premise, the film careens through its 105-minute runtime with the reckless momentum of a skier slaloming downhill. Though Family Switch is light and low-stakes in concept, there’s an admirable but eventually exhausting frenzy to its execution as a barrage of high-energy highlights: an ebullient line dance at a senior-year party, an unexpectedly rockin’ rendition of “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town,” a climactic car chase. The film somehow even finds the time to sustain a loony subplot involving neighbor Rolf (Matthias Schweighöfer, of Netflix’s Army of Thieves), who makes it his mission to care for the film’s other body-swapped duo—the Walkers’ newborn baby and their family dog, whose absurd antics are rendered via rather nightmarish CGI—despite his utter bafflement at their behavior.
Behind the camera is McG, the sugar-rush action specialist who once made big Hollywood movies like Charlie’s Angels and Terminator Salvation but who’s spent this past decade churning out Netflix originals. Family Switch often feels like one of his signature more-is-more propositions (like the over-the-top horror-comedy The Babysitter and Killer Queen, its twice-as-bonkers sequel), moving at dizzying speeds through as many body-swap scenarios as co-writers Victoria Strouse (Let It Snow) and Adam Sztykiel (Due Date) can dream up.
Even so, the film’s ornamental holiday setting works to ground its story in an overriding spirit of good cheer, and the strength of its performances keeps Family Switch mostly on the right side of saccharine. Not quite a new classic, nor a stale old chestnut, it’s instead feel-good froth—a cheerfully chaotic comedy that’s just sprightly and sweet-natured enough to tide over families recovering from their food comas this holiday season.