Heartwarming and funny, Happiest Season lives up to expectations without entering the schmaltzy Hallmark Channel zone. Written and directed by Clea DuVall, it’s a queer take on one of the straightest subgenres in American cinema: Christmas family romcoms. Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis star as Abby and Harper, a young couple who travel to Harper’s family home for the holidays. There’s just one problem: Harper hasn’t come out to her (very wealthy and implicitly Republican) family, and she introduces Abby as her “orphan roommate” instead of her girlfriend. It’s a perfect recipe for some absurd hijinks and genuinely moving commentary about life in the closet, featuring an excellent ensemble cast.
DIRECTOR: Clea DuVall
Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis star in this funny yet insightful Christmas romcom about a lesbian couple who travel home for the holidays. There's just one hitch: One of them hasn't told her parents that she's gay.
Christmas romcoms thrive on a familiar formula, often revolving around stressed young women who return to their small-town homes to Discover The True Meaning Of Christmas and fall in love with a local hunk. Lifetime and Hallmark churn out dozens of these movies each year, starring actresses like Melissa Joan Hart and Candace Cameron Bure. Happiest Season is several grades above this kind of made-for-TV fluff, but it plays with a lot of the same tropes. It is not, however, just a typical holiday romcom with a gay couple substituted into the lead roles.
Directed by a lesbian filmmaker and starring one of the most prominent queer actresses in Hollywood, this film really engages with queer life—both in its depiction of queer relationships and community and in the awkwardness of spending the holidays in an aggressively traditional family environment. Even the costumes are on point, with Kristen Stewart's Abby wearing a series of stylish soft-butch outfits while Harper and her sisters don high-waisted skirts and suburban WASP knitwear. As Abby's best friend (Schitt's Creek star Dan Levy) jokes halfway through: Have Harper's family ever met a lesbian? Kristen Stewart doesn't exactly exude a heterosexual vibe, yet Harper's relatives are so clueless that they quiz her about boyfriends and willfully misunderstand the subtext of two women sharing a one-bedroom apartment.
As someone with a low tolerance for sentimentality, I found myself startlingly invested in these characters getting a happy ending. DuVall writes a tight script, with plenty of funny one-liners for Levy and Harper's picture-perfect family. Mary Steenburgen and Victor Garber play Harper's parents, the marvelously named Tipper and Ted. Rich and overly concerned with appearances, they pressure their three daughters to the point where Harper and her sister Sloane (Alison Brie) are murderously competitive about everything. Harper is the favorite daughter, while Sloane is a judgemental Instagram mom with a type-A personality. Their parents have basically given up on sister number three (Mary Holland) on the grounds that she's just too weird to comprehend: an aspiring fantasy novelist who prefers her hobbies over material achievements.
In other words, DuVall sets up an extremely plausible explanation for why Harper is still in the closet, despite being an independent adult in a longterm relationship. She's terrified of losing the seemingly-conditional love of her parents, who offer no sign of being welcoming toward gay people.
Happiest Season's one flaw is that the more the story wears on, the less likeable Harper becomes. She's in a difficult position, but Abby is the clear protagonist. And Harper is basically treating her like crap. After springing the whole "I'm still in the closet" thing on Abby while they're on the way to Harper's family home, Harper consigns Abby to a separate bedroom in the basement, and spends most of her time hanging out with her family or old friends from high school. Including her ex-boyfriend Liam, who Harper neglected to mention before. Not only is Abby forced to hide her identity and relationship, she's suddenly exposed to a new, fake-straight version of her own girlfriend; a person who prioritizes her family's comfort and leaves Abby stranded in a deeply stressful situation.
Abby's one lifeline is an unexpected new acquaintance: Harper's ex-girlfriend (Aubrey Plaza), an oasis of queer solidarity in a suffocatingly conservative atmosphere. This contrast between the straight and queer social spheres is wonderfully well-observed, and Kristen Stewart is predictably relatable and charming in the lead role. But by the third act, I wasn't sure if I was rooting more for Harper to come out to her family, or for Abby to just break up with her and escape. The film probably would've benefited from showing more of Harper and Abby's relationship at the start, illustrating Harper's strengths as a girlfriend. You know, when she's not being crushed by internalized homophobia.
Harper's issues make Happiest Season into a more high-stakes venture than the average holiday romcom, but that conflict is balanced out by a strong sense of humor and a perfectly-cast role for Kristen Stewart. It's an interesting placement in Stewart's career as well, because while she's starred in several rather serious queer indie dramas (Lizzie, Certain Women), her more mainstream roles are either straight (Underwater) or effectively closeted (Charlie's Angels). If you're a queer actor wanting to play queer characters, Hollywood offers very few roles in fun, accessible movies like this one.
The fact that Happiest Season exists in the first place feels like a rare gift, and it's a tremendous relief to discover that it's also a good movie with something to say. Despite my qualms about Harper, it's a thoroughly satisfying romcom that balances social commentary with straightforward Christmas cheer. An ideal seasonal choice for when you're sick of Love, Actually (overrated!) but not emotionally prepared for another rewatch of Carol.