A heartfelt and professionally made debut feature by a Catholic CPA and business-owner and his AFI-trained cinematographer daughter, Christmas at Maxwell's is heartfelt but just a bit off-kilter. Shot in and around Cleveland, Ohio, in 2004, the film admirably asks the tough questions about why bad things--make that devastating, nightmarish things--happen to good people, and what in God's name is up with God?

Family man Andrew Austin (Andrew May) has a successful albeit vaguely presented career, a big, lovely home, two school-age kids (Julia and Charlie May, as Mary and Chris Austin), and a wife who's dying of cancer. Suzy Austin (the mannishly named Jack Hourigan, host of the Food Network series "How to Boil Water" and who, per her bio, "reports mildly amusing stories for CBS 19-Action News in Cleveland") used to be a cabaret singer in New York. After her short-tempered boyfriend dies in an off-screen motorcycle accident referred to in one of the film's countless flashbacks, the pregnant Suzy takes up again with old high-school flame Andrew. Besides the two kids, there's a mysterious "Lucy Austin" named on the cover of an empty photo album in the attic. This being a devoutly albeit not stridently Catholic movie, you can probably guess why there's no Lucy and why Suzy was struck with cancer.

The film wears its heart on its sleeve, but in an earnest and genuine way. Narratively, it's an odd fish: The first scene throws us into voiceover memories of people we haven't met, and later, as the family drives to Suzy's parents' house for the holidays, Andrew appears to be having Suzy's flashback. I'm sure no acid was dropped in the making of this movie, but you never know. Most of the first half-hour or so consists of little more than Andrew walking around and running into people he knows who ask over and over, "How's Suzy?" Writer-direction William Laufer's direction is thoroughly professional, though a little static, a little boxy. A very obtrusive lounge-piano score calls so much attention to itself that at one point it partially drowns out dialogue.

One good find is Andrew May, a seeming genetic cross of Chris Noth and Tom Hanks, who's associate artistic director of the well-regarded Great Lakes Theater Festival and has appeared in a couple of films and a few TV episodes. As the father and husband trying to keep everything together and to advocate for his wife's illness, he doesn't make a lot of the usual choices, playing the role instead with a simmering anger that's refreshing. The movie is fairly unflinching about the realities of Suzy's sickness, and you can understand why a man would feel like God's given him a "screw you"--not that there's anything here that wouldn't fall into the definition of a Christmas movie for the whole family.