Love in the Great Smoky Mountains: A National Park Romance 2023 Movie Review
Arielle Kebbel (9-1-1) plays Haley, an archaeologist with a fresh PhD, a desire to get published, and a request in for a grant at a big dig out west. Her first step to accomplishing both of those goals: joining up with a dig in the Great Smoky Mountains searching for artifacts from the Cherokee people (artifacts which the movie explicitly points out are owned by the Cherokee people and will be given to them upon discovery). Upon arriving at the dig, though, Haley makes a terrible discovery: her ex-boyfriend Rob (The Vampire Diaries‘ Zach Roerig) is also part of the dig.
Haley and Rob put aside their awkward history and focus on the task at hand: there’s potentially a historic find tied to an old Cherokee legend hidden within the nearby mountains. It’ll take some sleuthing and a lot of digging to solve the puzzle carved into the mountain, but Haley and Rob are up for it. The question is, will they also unearth any feelings that they buried years ago?
Speaking of “performance worth watching,” Arielle Kebbel really makes this movie stand out. She’s a perfect fit for the role of a driven, independent archaeologist who isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty. When she’s at the dig sporting a tank top and shades, she exudes a kind of Charlize Theron as Tomb Raider coolness that, y’know, you don’t exactly expect to get on Hallmark. There’s also a lived-in chemistry with Roerig, although the movie speedily tidies up their relationship and ditches all of the animosity without getting much out of it. I could’ve done with a little more witty repartee as these two gradually got used to each other again. Instead, Haley and Rob make up so fast that I was actually waiting for a dream sequence reveal.
The most remarkable part of Love in the Great Smoky Mountains, though, has to be how front and center Native American history is in the film — especially the bad parts that often get glossed. In addition to a montage spotlighting the actual Cherokee artisans that presumably make a living in the Smoky Mountains and weaving actual Cherokee mythology into the narrative, Troy and Sky actually tell the story of the Trail of Tears to Haley and Rob over a campfire.
Now, yes, the optics of the only two substantial cast members of color telling the white leads about the Trail of Tears is… basic at best. But I do applaud a Hallmark movie for initiating and continuing a series of light romance movies set in America’s national parks and not ignoring history or shying away from the hard facts. Just like in spring’s Love in Zion National, Love in the Great Smoky Mountains finds a way to address issues while still being a lighthearted romance. Of course, that means that instead of walk-and-talk scenes between Haley and Rob where they get to know each other, we get walk-and-talks with them talking about the history of the Cherokee in the Smoky Mountains. It’s not subtle but, hey, at least it’s different from the norm.
All that said, there are still moments of classic Hallmark camp in Love in the Great Smoky Mountains — like the way characters pull fully intact “artifacts” right out of the ground and proclaim that they must be hundreds of years old. You gotta love it.