Review: ‘Happiest Season’ gives the gift of a messy gay Christmas
No one has a monopoly on what Christmas looks like. As someone well-versed in the placement of babies into mangers and all pertinent accouterments, I can confidently say that is the whole point.
Which brings me to “Happiest Season.” Let’s hope you are lucky enough to have someone in your life who was stoked out of their gourds when they first heard about this entry into the Christmas movie canon. Conceived, co-written and directed by Clea DuVall (the lesbian star of “But I’m a Cheerleader” and many more), early news about “Happiest Season” promised a heartwarming home-for-the-holidays comedy, the kind we love to watch every year while we wrap presents or address cards. But to get all those seasonal trappings, plus an all-star cast and what looked to be an actual budget, with an unambiguous lesbian love story at the center? Throw an extra splash of Old Crow into that eggnog — we’ve got a rare bird on our hands.
I eagerly awaited its arrival, as did several people I know. It finally hits Hulu on Nov. 25.
In “Happiest Season,” Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis) are young and in love. They’ve got something 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 asks her girlfriend to come home and meet her family.
With Abby’s annual pet-sitting commitments dispatched to wise-cracking best friend John (Dan Levy), it’s all sweaters and snow and sugar until Harper drops a bomb on the drive over: She’s never actually come out to her family, and they don’t know about Abby. And with Harper’s father in the middle of a tense mayoral election, she doesn’t want to make the big reveal until after Christmas. So, they decide to pass Abby off as Harper’s roommate — a classic gay cliche — and it goes over just about as well as you’d expect. Levy’s character sums it up well, saying to Abby, who again is played by Stewart: “Have they ever met a lesbian?”
Let me stop right there and point out that, underneath the yuletide yuks, that’s a hella depressing premise. Bleak, man.
And that’s part of the biggest challenge that “Happiest Season” presents on its way to your heart: Harper’s family is truly, mind-numbingly awful. I won’t cast it as a flaw in the film, per se. Family can be rough in ways small and large, can’t it? Even if you have a functional, thriving nuclear unit, nothing produces more venom per capita than a group of people legally and biologically bound, all expertly trained to find each other’s emotional triggers and then stuffed into a shared space under the pretense of glad tidings.
All that’s to say, these people put Abby through it. If you’re expecting a cozy comedy of errors, “Happiest Season” isn’t really that. It’s more like a tragicomedy, where you watch a queer woman who’s borne her share of punches in life suffer a series of indignities in the name of frictionless cheer. Harper’s image-obsessed parents — politician Ted (Victor Garber, playing a Victor Garber character) and controlling Tipper (Mary Steenburgen, playing a Frances Fisher character) — are wealthy super-WASPs, blatantly picking favorites among their daughters and orchestrating the Christmas season around an election. Older sister Sloane (Alison Brie, who I don’t think blinks the entire movie) is a resentful super-mom who snipes at Harper and Abby every chance she gets. Only sweet, excitable younger sister Jane (Mary Holland, who also co-wrote the screenplay) seems to have the impulse toward human kindness, and you get the idea that her family finds that deeply strange.
As Abby inevitably drifts apart from Harper over a Christmas light-strewn lie, you have to wonder: Why would she even want to save this relationship?
The film’s fully cloaked as a Hallmark-warm treat, but thorny questions like this lurk underneath “Happiest Season.” The goofy glitter kinda does the movie a disservice; I would think that the subtlety was unintentional, if not for Stewart and Levy. Credit to the script for giving them the material, but the plot’s climactic moment is anchored by their performances, which cut through the schmaltz and straight to the pain of being queer in a world, and a season, not cut to fit your frame.
But I mean, it’s also funny. Mary Steenburgen has a great line about buying a racehorse in an Ambien stupor.
Stewart’s a port in the zany storm, and Levy’s reliably wonderful. (Davis, a fave from “Black Mirror” and “Terminator: Dark Fate,” also is charming, but sadly Harper is kind of the worst.) Joining Carroll’s Jane as scene-stealers are a who’s who of comedians in cameos, including Timothy Simons, Lauren Lapkus, Michelle Buteau and Ana Gasteyer. “RuPaul’s Drag Race” stars Jinkx Monsoon and BenDeLaCreme even show up at one point. And “Happiest Season” gives us a true Christmas miracle: The great Aubrey Plaza plays a former flame of Harper’s, and she’s not spooky or unhinged in the least, for the first time … ever? It works!
If you saw the trailer for “Happiest Season” and expected a mainstream Christmas movie with a seamlessly assimilated queer storyline, recalibrate. This is nothing so utopian, even if it is ultimately wrapped in a heart-warming bow by the end. But you might find that once you let the cookies cool and the snow settle, it’s fitting for a queer holiday rom-com to be a little more complicated. If that’s what your December looks like, then here’s a friend.
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Dan Levy, Aubrey Plaza
Director: Clea DuVall
Rated: PG-13 for some language
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes
Watch: Available Nov. 25 on Hulu