The Christmas romantic comedy isn’t a new concept, but a big mainstream release with queer lead characters in this genre absolutely feels refreshingly new—and called for to boot. What’s interesting is that Happiest Season absolutely sticks to conventions of the genre that are tried and true to good effect.
Happiest Season is writer-director Clea DuVall’s second feature and sees Harper (Mackenzie Davis) invite her girlfriend Abby (Kristen Stewart) to visit her family over Christmas, while Abby secretly plans to propose to Harper on their trip. Everything seems perfectly smooth on Abby’s end, until Harper reveals her big secret—she hasn’t come out to her politically-conscious family and Abby will have to act as her ‘roommate’ when they arrive.
In a similar vein to 2018’s Love, Simon (which helped this film be greenlit by Sony two months after that film’s release and subsequent success), it takes a classic premise and places a queer spin on a story that has largely focused on straight characters for decades on end. It’s very much Meet the Parents but with a queer angle. The main difference is that the queer experience is the key conflict of the story and adds an extra layer to a specific subgenre that’s already filled with awkward tension. And on top of that, you put this conflict into a Christmas setting, where everyone’s worst tendencies seem to reveal themselves—as Abby’s character says in the film.
One of the key story beats throughout is concerned with the way in which we conceal our identities and hide secrets from our families. Harper’s father Ted (Victor Garber) is mounting a political campaign to be Mayor, where he’s forced to show his good reputation to all. In a specific scene, we see his character reciting a speech word-for-word, glowing as he watches the playback of how he’s wowing the crowd. It may be the thesis statement of what Happiest Season is about—reputations, and how we internally feel like we’re forced to keep them, improve them or uphold them. The Caldwell family as a whole is one of the more out-there and eccentric in recent memory. Harper’s mother (Mary Steenburgen) is extremely image-conscious and evens laughs at the idea of two women sharing a bed. Meanwhile, Harper’s two sisters seem to occupy two opposite ends of the spectrum. There’s the neurotic and overly competitive Sloane (Alison Brie), who wants to get into the inner circle of her father’s campaign that Harper fully occupies. There’s also the perpetually under-loved Jane (Mary Holland, who also co-wrote the film with DuVall), who’s the goofy joke of the family. All three sisters are either trying to improve their reputation within the family or hiding secrets so their reputations aren’t ruined.
Abby, and Stewart herself, is the wildcard of the whole film. It’s so great to see DuVall perfectly utilise Stewart’s loveable nervous energy in a comedy. She’s an actress who is frequently shrugged off, even though she’s one of the most acclaimed actors of the 2010s (she was the first American actress to win a Cesar Award). There’s a very sitcom-like feel to the whole film, on both a pure scene-to-scene level and a visual level. That’s not a slight in any major way—DuVall knows what film she’s creating. Even when the film does feel like it’s becoming a bit too heightened and sitcom-like, Stewart is the one who grounds this story with emotional depth and resonance, beautifully portraying silent heartbreak. It’s a nice balance between her indie work in something like Personal Shopper and her big comedic turn in last year’s Charlie’s Angels—which she’s undoubtedly the best part of.
Mackenzie Davis has played queer characters before, most notably in what is arguably the best Black Mirror episode—San Junipero. She portrays Harper in a similar fashion with a lot of bubbly energy, although DuVall and Holland make an interesting choice as writers to not force the audience to sympathise with Harper as much as they do with Abby. As soon as Harper enters her hometown, she shifts on axis by frequently ditching Abby to enhance her political standing with her father. Harper loses a bit of spark even as she and Abby are pretending to be friends, going so far as to hang out and flirt with her ex-boyfriend right in front of Abby. Davis gives a very sensitive performance, and while she may not be on the level of Stewart, they both share an authentic dynamic.
I have to admit that Stewart may have had even stronger chemistry with Aubrey Plaza—whose performance as Harper’s charming ex is magnetic. She’s the one actress who is severely underused and gives the film an extra boost when she’s on screen.
As a Christmas comedy, it’s imperative that there’s hijinks, and there’s a fair bit of that in Happiest Season. In one of the cleverer scenes with an obvious visual metaphor, Abby has to literally hide in a closet while trying to sneak around the Caldwell’s house before being caught out. The whole film has to put on a real balancing act of working as a hijinks-laden Christmas comedy with awkwardly comedic set pieces while also being an emotionally resonant story about the queer experience. The meld between these two modes isn’t always as smooth as it could be, but it still manages to satisfy on both levels thanks to a screenplay that is laden with empathy. Even the more mediocre dialogue is well sold by a cast who buy into this story. Dan Levy is the film’s comedic light as Abby’s gay best friend John, who housesits for Abby (to mildly disastrous effect) before visiting the Caldwell’s unannounced to try and rescue her. While his character’s shift from purely being a quip machine to helping deliver the film’s most emotional moments is slightly jarring, Levy’s potent charisma is undeniable.
Happiest Season is a simple holiday story that also tries to cover a heap of emotional and comedic territory. What’s essential is that because it’s a queer story, it brings a new layer to what could be your average Christmas romantic comedy. Yes, you will see Netflix dole out a slew of mediocre (to terrible) Christmas fare to laugh at this holiday season, but instead of laughing at how at how bad Netflix’s original holiday offerings are, try Happiest Season. It may not be the most innovative film, but it’s a great—and extremely crowd pleasing—starting point for stories that should be more frequently told in Hollywood today.
Happiest Season is showing at Perth cinemas now.