The best thing about Happiest Season is how excited everyone was that it exists.
It’s been over a year since the film was first announced, a press release issued into a collective warm hug by Film Twitter, Gay Twitter, and People Who Like Happy Things Twitter.
It is a queer Christmas-set romantic comedy directed and co-written by Clea DuVall, a “how can you not root for her?” icon. It stars Mackenzie Davis (Black Mirror: San Junipero) and Kristen Stewart (the internet’s swoon target). It injects queerness into the ceaselessly popular, but dejectedly parochial and aggressively hetero cottage industry of holiday romance movies.
It enlists a cast including Schitt’s Creek saint Daniel Levy, legend Mary Steenburgen, and crowd-pleasing scene-stealers Aubrey Plaza and Victor Garber. The cast posted a photo of themselves adorned with rainbow flags in honor of Pride Month, and the internet could barely contain its happy tears.
Sight unseen, the movie already has played in the heads of an audience desperate for a queer-positive addition to the holiday romance canon featuring a cast this likable. The movie playing on Hulu starting next week, however, is probably not that movie.
That’s OK! It’s still quite good, as far as this genre goes: both entirely pleasant and with a nimble thumb plucking at the heart strings just when you want it to.
But like groundbreaking “firsts” before it, for example Love, Simon and its status as the first studio teen rom-com featuring a gay lead, it’s bound to spark some backlash and disappointment. And those criticisms will have nothing to do with the actual quality of the piece. That’s the burden of “firsts,” even at Christmastime.
Happiest Season—which was co-written by Duvall and the film’s breakout star, Mary Holland—subverts the cookie-cutter Christmas movie format. The central couple is facing the scrutiny of a kooky family for the holidays, yes. But the catch is that, in this case, the family doesn’t know the couple is a couple.
Harper (Davis) and Abby (Stewart) are in that all-encompassing, heart-elevating, smile-plastering sweet spot where couples reside right before they get engaged, which Abby plans to do with Harper soon after we meet them.
They’re touring Christmas light displays, a favorite activity of holiday enthusiast Harper but merely a humoring exercise for Abby, who doesn’t have the same nostalgic connection to all things merry and bright. Still, the date is so romantic that Harper seizes the passion and invites Abby home for Christmas to meet her family, certain that their festiveness will win her Grinch heart over.
The catch is, as Harper uncouthly reveals to Abby on the drive to her childhood home, Harper has never come out to her parents, who think Abby is merely her roommate who has nowhere else to go for the holidays. Abby is stunned and hurt at Harper’s suggestion that she play the part through the trip. Harper’s father is running for political office and keeping up appearances—a stalwart principle of her family—is more important now than ever. But she agrees because she loves Harper that much, on the condition that they come out as a couple once the holidays are over.
Of course, the task is complicated once they arrive and the family presents itself as almost too high maintenance to handle. Alison Brie and Mary Holland play Harper’s sisters, Sloane and Jane. Sloane has always competed with Harper for their dad’s approval, planting the seeds of a bitter rivalry, while Jane marches to the beat of her own drummer—though the percussion is fiercely loyal to her family.
Mary Steenburgen is the matriarch, tasked with manicuring the family’s perfect, holiday card-ready life. And Victor Garber is the father whose Christmas mission is securing the support of a major donor for his campaign (played by Ana Gasteyer), hoping that his blissfully heteronormative nuclear family will help.
Ghosts of Harper’s past surface and complicate the trip. Plaza plays her ex-girlfriend; Harper cruelly told their school she had invented their relationship out of an obsession when they were outed. And Jake McDorman is her ex-boyfriend, whom the family always thought she should end up with. Dan Levy plays Abby’s best friend, a sounding board as she vents her way through the trauma of being shoved back in the closet during the weekend she had initially planned to propose.
Happiest Season hits every note of, if not an all-time great Christmas movie, an above-average and pleasant one. There are pratfalls and holiday-themed hijinks; someone falls off a roof, a character is framed for shoplifting, and there is a wrestling match at an auspicious party that uses Christmas decorations as weapons. There is heart basked in the glow of Christmas lights and soaked in the egg nog of holiday wistfulness; you will cry.
To say that Steenburgen is fantastic in her role doesn’t do justice to the character description of “Mary Steenburgen as a tightly wound Christmas mom at her wit’s end.” And Holland as the slightly off-kilter Jane just about steals the movie. Her utterance of “I am an ally” at a climactic moment may just be the line delivery of the year.
Stewart’s easy, seemingly effortless star power pays off in spades. And her character’s candid conversations with Plaza and Levy provide the architecture that make the film work; they are nuanced, complicated, emotional, and, for the queer community, relatable in their frustration.
But that—the frustration—is also the thing. The thing that’s going to turn some people against this movie.
I’m speaking on behalf on an unquantifiable group of people, and maybe that’s out of turn, but I think there was a palpable desire for a warm, spirited, celebratory holiday film about an out-and-proud queer romance featuring this cast of beloved actors. I think most people assumed that was what Happiest Season was going to be. I’m not sure people expected, or maybe even will tolerate, a film that instead is about gay shame, being closeted, and queer self-loathing—even if the characters do come out on the other side.
None of those are novel concepts when it comes to same-sex romances on film, even if they are new to the holiday genre. There’s a bit of an exasperation when it comes to their perpetual portrayals.
It’s the constant tension at the root of queer pop culture. Coming out is still a formative and, for some, the most consequential aspect of a LGBT experience. Yet TV and films that reduce that experience to only that fail the community when there are no other facets as richly and joyously explored.
Are there gay people who can relate to the drama of bringing the same-sex partner home for Christmas? Hi! Yes.
But would it be nice for a genre that is all about escapism, fantasy, and the bliss that results from the magic of the holidays to skip the painful part and bask in the love, romance, and Yuletide euphoria that is also very much a part of the LGBT experience? That doesn’t need to focus on a coming-out struggle to get there? The fact that in 2020 we’re still waiting for that is shocking.
Yet Happiest Season is the movie that it is. And it is a good version of that movie, one that, hopefully, will be impactful to an audience that loves the holiday movie genre and maybe never would have thought to emotionally invest in this kind of story. It’s heartfelt enough to change minds and hearts. A holiday miracle!
More, it’s around two hours of Kristen Stewart learning to love Christmas, occasionally chatting with Dan Levy about it. What a treat at any time of year! What remains to be seen is how people will react to the oversell. In the end, it’s really a Happy-ish Season.