Synopsis – A holiday romantic comedy that captures the range of emotions tied to wanting your family’s acceptance, being true to yourself, and trying not to ruin Christmas.
My Take – On a general notion I tend to usually avoid Christmas themed films, not that I got anything against them or anyone who gobbles them wholeheartedly, but mainly because they all tend to go a certain expected way with every pleasing assortment precisely calculated for its whole run time.
You always have the loving parents who are in some kind of secretive trouble, the kids coming home for some family time always have their set of unshared issues like one of them is broke or divorcing, but the common element always has to be the (re) introduction of the ex into the picture to cause emotional confusion. All being processed through an amalgamation of awkward, embarrassing, and cringe worthy moments.
However, writer-director-actress Clea DuVall‘s sophomore effort is a variation on this oft-used theme, as she sets out to put a queer spin on the sort of comforting, feel-good holiday romances that straight audiences have been enjoying for decades. And like the similarly delightful teen film Love, Simon (2018), this one too feels like nothing you’ve seen before and also like a lot of things you’ve seen before. In simpler terms, I went in expecting fairly typical cheesy Christmas fare, with a liberal sprinkling, but was pleasantly drawn in to an engaging story, that was very realistic and is likely relatable to many in the LGBT community.
Marketed as the first studio (Sony) produced, LGBT-centric holiday romantic comedy, as most high-profile Hollywood films about lesbian couples have been more often than not set in depressing dramatic settings, this latest Hulu release (following its theatrical release cancellation due to the pandemic) on the most basic level is instantly refreshing as director DuVall‘s film is a modern romantic comedy through and through that too genuinely funny and heartfelt. Honestly, I didn’t expect great cinema but was happy to experience this very good time.
The story follows Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis), a young couple who are madly in love and have got some magic going, even if Abby doesn’t reciprocate Harpers’ love of the holiday season. Abby, whose parents died years back, is used to spending Christmas alone, but after a thrilling night of wintry romance, Harper invites her to come home and meet her family. Though, Abby isn’t totally convinced, she agrees and transfers her annual pet-sitting commitments to John (Dan Levy), her wise-cracking best friend.
However, it’s not until halfway through the road trip to her parents’ house that Harper confesses to Abby that she’s not out to her family yet. So while Abby had been planning to propose at the Caldwell family Christmas, she instead finds herself pretending to be Harper’s straight roommate.
Even worse, she’s shocked to discover that her quirky, fun-loving girlfriend acts differently when she’s around her competitive, conservative and image conscious family which includes her father, Ted (Victor Garber), her mother, Tipper (Mary Steenburgen), her nasty older sister, Sloane (Alison Brie), and needy middle sister, Jane (Mary Holland). Being back in her hometown seems to awaken Harper’s latent high school mean girl, as she starts ditching Abby to schmooze with her parents’ colleagues or grab drinks with her high-school boyfriend, Connor (Jake McDorman).
Your average holiday film might settle for this as enough plot points, but part of the fun of this film is despite following the familiar formula we might expect, it throws in all kinds of hilarious turns, as it bounces back and forth between being a fascinating character drama and a cheesy comedy. Not all the jokes land, but the film gets major points for pulling off a surprisingly funny runner about Abby’s dead parents. There’s also some warm family business, and there’s Aubrey Plaza playing Harper’s ex, Riley, who plays a significant role in revealing how Harper got into this situation in the first place.
The boldest choice director DuVall makes here is to skip past the flutters of first love and instead center the film on a couple in crisis. And she lets Harper earn full-on unlikable points, which doesn’t particularly aid the film as a romance or comedy, but does take it to some interesting dramatic places. The film is sensitive about explaining explicitly that people not being out to their families doesn’t reflect poorly on them, and it doesn’t mean they don’t love their partners. But the particular ways Harper treats Abby, and the situations she puts Abby in, strain the necessary part of this story in which you root for this couple.
As the film is about dual nature of one self in a way that speaks to the specific queer experience of being in the closet, yet it’s equally relatable to anyone who feels like they become a different person around their family. For example, Harper’s politician dad and image-focused mom have slotted their three daughters into preordained roles and then subtly pitted them against one another. That leaves Harper with plenty to unpack in her relationship with her sisters.
Thankfully, director DuVall also understands that families have their own rules and logic, and that they’re hard to escape. We can look at the emotional prisons other people willingly agree to live in yet never quite see the delusions, compromises and assumptions of our own. And no one ever leaves the family cell block without actively wanting to. It’s not a matter of talking someone into it, but it has to come from them.
The film’s only flaw is that its opening scenes don’t do enough to establish that same level of connection between Abby and Harper. Their early bond seems more fueled more an attraction than by the believable specifics of a serious year-long relationship, which means the film requires a big buy-in from its audience when it comes to investing in the film’s central couple as they head toward a rough patch.
Nevertheless, there is no denying of the fact that the cast is the biggest draw of the film. Kristen Stewart has already well established her acting chops, but her laid-back, charming, funny performance here is sure to win over her biggest dictators. The very talented Mackenzie Davis is terrific here and does a wonderful job portraying the emotions that come with a story of this nature. Mary Steenburgen and Victor Garber are wonderful as Harper’s uptight parents, currently in the middle of a political campaign where they need to tout the appearance of a perfect family.
Alison Brie brings another version of her familiar neurotic performance, while Aubrey Plaza as always is a knockout. Mary Holland (who also co-wrote the film) kills every scene she is in, and manages to make her character deeply funny but never pitiful. Dan Levy also provides brilliant comedic relief as Abby’s confidant, cracking up the audience every time he shows up on screen and even gets to put his dramatic chops to use in a lovely climatic monologue about the coming-out experience.
In other roles, Jake McDorman, Burl Moseley, Sarayu Blue and Ana Gasteyer are also good. On the whole, ‘Happiest Season’ is a charming, funny and easy to watch holiday rom com that endearingly represents queer characters in a familiar format.
Directed – Clea DuVall
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 102 minutes