December 14, 2020
t the beginning of Happiest Season, Clea DuVall’s holiday-set romantic comedy, Harper (Mackenzie) asks Abby (Kristen Stewart), her girlfriend of a year, to come home with her for Christmas. It’s a gesture that understandably confirms to Abby that she and Harper are definitely in it for the long haul; after Harper’s invite, Abby is inspired to take a trip to a jewelry store. She decides she’s going to propose to Harper on
Christmas Day, and in front of the whole family; she even plans on asking her future father-in-law for his blessing ahead of time. But, en route to Harper’s family home (perched in an unspecified, Hallmark Channel-looking town a ways from Pittsburgh), the fantasy shatters. It turns out that Harper hasn’t actually yet come out to her conservative family like she said she had. She's told her folks simply that Abby is her roommate — tagging along because she didn't have any family to come home to. Abby, ever-forgiving, begrudgingly agrees to play along. Underlying the trip, though, is the expectation that Harper will tell her family the truth before heading back home.
But for almost all of Happiest Season, the truth remains elusive. Abby is forced
to sit in the shadows, almost, as Harper retreats back into old dynamics. She's mostly an afterthought. On the phone, Abby notes to her best friend back home, John (Dan Levy), that she feels like when she's around Harper lately, it's like she's with a different person — someone who lives only to please others. This is heavy stuff. But because Happiest Season is a movie working within the framework of the meant-to-be-heartwarming holiday movie, e.g. Hallmark or 2005’s chaotic-but-fun The Family Stone, DuVall and her co-screenwriter Mary Holland (who also co-stars) work to soften the material’s built-in misery — bring it some levity and sometimes straight-up silliness. Comic hijinks, usually relating to off-kilter interfamilial relationships and social errors, come steadily, often with jarring Saturday Night Live broadness. Some of the characters, like Harper's competitive sister Sloane (Alison Brie) or her image-obsessed mother (Mary Steenburgen), have a caricatured energy.
Some comic bits are inspired (Levy is a go-to for one-liners), and that the movie’s main conflict has real emotional stakes is a welcome retort to the flimsy style of discord that usually appears in a traditional Christmas film. Veteran Hallmark-movie screenwriter Ron Oliver once said that a conflict in one of the channel's films “can never seem like it’s gone so far that it can’t be resolved.” In Happiest Season, there is much to be lost. Though we figure the movie won't end on a bleak note, we can't help but think about, not unlike Harper, what could go wrong. DuVall’s direction is less assured during some of the movie's more highly strung comic scenes, but it’s solid during the more emotionally charged moments. DuVall has said her own experiences informed the story (she herself came out to her family when she was about 25), and you can detect her investment.
One might watch Happiest Season, though, and think Harper is asking too much of Abby — to the point of being a bit cruel. We don’t fault her for still struggling to publicly acknowledge her sexuality, but it is frustrating that she hadn’t much considered how hurtful it might be to Abby to participate in a masquerade that mostly leaves her disregarded. This isn’t helped by how very little of their romance is established outside the Christmas holiday — we’re most familiar with Abby’s unhappiness. Nor by how, when one of Harper’s exes, Riley (Aubrey Plaza), introduces herself at a party, her connection to Abby feels stronger than anything we've seen from the main couple. Stewart and Plaza’s ensuingly warm, engaging interplay (their characters become fast friends) perhaps inadvertently makes us root slightly more for a breakup than the happy ending we're more than likely going to get. It's safe to assume that this is not what DuVall and Holland intended. I have other minor gripes with the movie: the way Harper’s family is coded as conservative but never has its politics even cursorily examined (I suppose Trump memorabilia decorating the front yard would be a vibe-killer); the perpetuation of wealthy, white characters as the demographic with which the mainstream holiday movie is most inclined to spend time.
Still, Happiest Season worked over me. I knew as much when the contrivedly problem-solving last few moments made me grin in spite of my misgivings.
It can be hard to resist a sunny ending in a holiday movie even if the all-wounds-healed simplicity is out of step with the complications preceding it. It’s nice to see two women at the center of a holiday rom-com — a genre that is by default heteronormative — and the movie is mostly enjoyable. I do hope, though, that in the future mainstream LGBTQ+-centered rom-coms venture more outside of the experiences of the white and affluent, and feature stories that don’t hinge on coming out and a straight acceptance of it. B