What a solid, sweet film this is — and timed just perfectly to begin the holiday season.

“Almost Christmas” has a wonderful cast and an engaging script that centers around the family patriarch Walter (Danny Glover). This is his first Christmas without his wife, Grace, and the awkwardness that ensues is partly because her absence has all the hearts of her relatives aching for her … and her sweet-potato pie.

I love the way director David E. Talbert begins the film with a brief history of the family, showing glimpses of the children and the parents as the years go by — not enough to bog down the story that’s set in the current day, but just enough so you get a flavor of the characters and the tone of the film itself.

Now Walter is by himself in the big family home, filled with memories of Grace. He invites his adult children to come home even though he knows that bickering will ensue. All his five kids need to do, he figures, is get through five days.

In the meantime, Walter sets out to accomplish the unthinkable: He will try to replicate Grace’s beloved pie dish.

While we are offered family-gathering-and-bickering movies every year, few of them have ensembles this enjoyable. Former athlete Lonnie (J.B. Smoove), whose wife Cheryl (Kimberly Elise) knows he has a wandering eye, is at the core of much of the comedy here. Rachel (Gabrielle Union) is a single mother who is a waitress but wants to pursue a legal career. She’s proud of her independence — so proud she rebuffs the advances of Walter’s well-meaning next door neighbor Malachi (Omar Epps.)

Rachel and Cheryl continually tangle — they just can’t stop picking at each other. Meanwhile, their brother Christian (Romany Malco) is running for Congress, and can’t seem to focus on anything but his campaign.

The youngest sibling Evan (Jessie T. Usher) has a chance at a professional football career. But he has his problems, too, although the rest of his family is unaware of his struggles.

Mo’Nique plays Grace’s sister, the brash, often coarse Aunt May. She enjoys telling stories about her days as a backup singer and hollering at the rest of her family to keep them in line.

Some of the situations will be familiar from other similar movies. But some are really compelling and will draw you in with universal themes about loss, the importance of communication and the strength of family.

You’re bound to thank of your own family when you enjoy the holidays with Walter’s gathering.

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Film critic/reporter since 1985 at Quad-City Times. Broadcast Film Critics Association member. College instructor for criminal justice, English and math. Serves on Safer Foundation and The Salvation Army advisory boards. Member of St. Mark Lutheran Church