Happiest Season is a holiday-themed romcom in which Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis play a same-sex couple. The supporting cast also features Aubrey Plaza, Alison Brie, and Victor Garber. The film comes to us from Clea DuVall, an openly gay woman here making her sophomore directing/co-writing feature after a respectable acting career in such works as Argo, “Better Call Saul”, “Broad City”, “Veep”, and “The Handmaid’s Tale”.
(Side note: DuVall’s writing/directing feature debut was The Intervention in 2016, an indie film that didn’t even crack $40,000 at the box office. It looks really interesting, though, with a wonderful cast and the latter half of Tegan and Sara providing the music. I may have to look into that one sometime.)
All of this was enough to sell me on this movie so hard, I actually signed up for a Hulu account. So, what have we got?
The film opens with a series of adorable pictures illustrating the meet-cute between Abby and Harper (respectively played by Stewart and Davis). Throughout the opening credits, we follow these two in the first year of their relationship together, by way of these genuinely poignant illustrations. I feel like I already know these two characters, and I’m deeply invested in their relationship together, all before the opening credits have wrapped. That’s a powerful start.
Anyway, Harper is thrilled to go back to her parents’ house and visit the family for the holidays. The initial plan is for Abby to stay at home, as she’s overcome with holiday ennui and she doesn’t have any family to go back to as her parents died ten years ago. Plus, Harper comes from an otherwise heteronormative family, which only adds to Abby’s initial awkwardness of meeting her girlfriend’s parents for the first time, to say nothing of partaking in Christmas traditions she doesn’t particularly care for.
Nevertheless, Harper wants Abby to come along and meet the folks, and she wants to wake up next to her girlfriend on Christmas Day. Abby herself quickly warms up to the idea, to the point where she buys an engagement ring with the hopes of proposing over the holiday, while Harper’s family is there to give their blessing.
The kicker: Harper never actually came out to her parents. See, her father (Ted, played by Victor Garber) is running for mayor, and she’s worried about how his daughter’s sexuality might impact his political campaign. So Abby and Harper have to play along with the charade that they’re straight roommates.
So let’s take a step back and look at what we’ve got here. For obvious reasons, marriage and family are heavily connected to each other, as are family and Christmas. So using all three concepts to comment on each other was honestly rather brilliant.
More specifically, the institutions of marriage, family, and Christmas could each be considered a kind of Rubin’s Vase. From one perspective, they could provide a warm stability, bringing love and joy and beauty in an uncaring world. From another perspective, they could be archaic and oppressive relics mandated by the white capitalist patriarchy.
As a happy same-sex couple — the kind that was only really possible within the past ten years or so — Abby and Harper are ideally placed to approach the old ideas and status quo with a fresh perspective. And their struggles at keeping their relationship secret illustrate how painful and actively harmful it is to pretend that they’re somebody else, unable to love openly. Moreover, it speaks to the obstacles inherent in same-sex relationships, and the courage needed to overcome them. Then again, even hetero marriages have secrets and problems that tend to stay hidden.
All of this is delivered in a way that’s sincerely moving without sacrificing humor. Though of course it helps that Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis are both a joy to watch and their chemistry together is sizzling. Elegantly done.
So, let’s take a closer look at Harper’s family, shall we? Basically put, they’re every bit as bland, high-strung, and painstakingly inoffensive as you’d expect from a family of well-to-do yuppies. The kind of people who go through life with strained smiles stapled to their faces.
Ted is a politician who relentlessly panders to everyone he meets, and his wife/self-appointed social media manager (played by Mary Steenburgen) is named Tipper, so that tells you pretty much everything you need to know. We’ve also got Jane, Harper’s put-upon older sister, played with pathological neurosis by co-writer Mary Holland. Last but not least is Sloane (played with tyrannical gusto by Alison Brie), the overachieving eldest sister who married a Yale graduate (Eric, played by Burl Moseley) and went on to a successful law business before staying at home to raise twin children (two hellions played by Anis and Asiyih N’Dobe — I assume they’re actual siblings)… you get the idea.
Elsewhere, we’ve got Ana Gasteyer as a potential donor whom Ted is trying to win over for his campaign. There’s also Connor (Jake McDorman), Harper’s ex-boyfriend who clearly still isn’t over her. Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention John (Dan Levy), Abby’s gay best friend, who helps to act as a sounding board for Abby’s anxieties through this unfolding clusterfuck. It’s a neat subversion of the “flamboyantly gay best friend” romcom cliche, as John is uniquely capable of providing the gay perspective that Abby needs to hear in the moment.
HOWEVER, John does have a strange talent for “tracking” his friends and acquaintances, such that he knows where they are at any given moment. It’s a convenient plot device for getting certain characters where they need to be. A few characters edge right up to commenting on how creepy and unethical that is, but nobody ever does. Bad move.
But the MVP of the supporting cast is probably Aubrey Plaza in the role of Riley, Harper’s old high school girlfriend. In theory, this should put Abby in the middle of yet another awkward position. In practice, Riley turns out to be an invaluable confidante for Abby — the only one in the entire town who knows the full truth about Abby and Harper. When Abby most desperately needs someone to talk to, an escape from the closet she’s been forced back into, Riley’s right there with a compassionate ear and honest counsel. And yet, the fact remains that this is still Harper’s ex-girlfriend and there are any number of ways this arrangement could backfire.
Then we have the soundtrack. Though there are a couple of traditional carols in here, most of the soundtrack is comprised of original songs and covers from contemporary artists — Sia, Bebe Rexha, Tegan and Sara, just to name a few. Like the rest of the film at its best, the soundtrack is a delightful juxtaposition of old-fashioned comfort and modern style. Amazing.
Which brings me to the nitpicks. There’s no avoiding the fact that the film does stoop to some threadbare romcom cliches, though the modern LGBTQ-centric nature of the premise helps to keep them fresh somewhat. Likewise, this is a movie revolving around a secret — which inevitably means wacky hijinks and misunderstandings that went stale decades ago — and the only reason the secret has to be kept is because the characters are assholes.
Then again, everything unlikeable about the characters comes back to the unreasonable facade they’ve been keeping up. It speaks to the difficulty in being open and honest with ourselves and others about who we are, which is a central theme of the movie. So if the characters come off as shrill parodies of actual human beings, and they’re trying so hard to be perfect, then maybe that says more about what the notion of “perfect” really is.
Overall, I had a wonderful time with Happiest Season. Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis play the most endearing romantic couple I’ve seen all year, and the rest of the cast all came ready to play. Even if some characters and moments come off as forced and cliche, the film has more than enough charm, humor, intelligence, and heart to make up for it. The dramatic moments are empowering and uplifting, and even the weakest joke here is worth a laugh.
It’s an instant holiday favorite, exactly the hip and all-inclusive Christmas movie that we need here and now. This one comes STRONGLY recommended.