“Happiest Season” queers the Christmas movie

Happiest Season Kristen Stewart & Mackenzie Davis in Happiest Season (Hulu)

The Hulu exclusive from writer/director Clea Duvall is a cute romantic comedy to put you in the holiday spirit.

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For years, the Hallmark Channel has turned Yuletide romantic comedies into a cottage industry, and with movies like Netflix’s The Christmas Prince, the streaming services are hoping to get in on a piece of the figgy pudding. But, like most mainstream media, these movies tend to focus on cishet people finding love, so what’s a queer person to do? In a star-studded original movie, Hulu offers a Christmas love story for the LGBTQ+ community with Happiest Season. Written and directed by Clea Duvall, who played Graham in the lesbian classic But I’m a Cheerleader, it is the perfect holiday film for those who want a gay twist on Christmas.

Happiest Season is both a gay spin on the holiday relationship movie, and an inverted version of the Birdcage/La Cage Aux Folles. In a Christmas induced reverie, Harper Caldwell (Mackenzie Davis) coaxes her Christmas-averse girlfriend Abby (Kristen Stewart) to leave Pittsburgh for the holidays and stay with her and her family in the burbs. Abby eventually agrees, and decides this would be the perfect time to ask Harper to marry her. Abby’s nuptial excitement is cut short on the ride out to Harper’s parents, as Harper confesses she still hasn’t come out as a lesbian to her family. Abby’s hopes of proposing are dashed, as Harper begs Abby to pretend to just be her “roommate,” coming along since both of Abby’s parents are dead, and she has no one else to spend holidays with.

Abby is not only thrust back into the closet, but also into the Caldwell family’s upper-middle class dysfunctions. Harper’s father, Ted (Victor Garber), is running for mayor, and her mother Tipper (Mary Steenburgen) is hyper-focused on maintaining a family friendly image for the campaign. As Abby meets Harper’s high-strung and competitive sister Sloane (Alison Brie), and Jane (Mary Holland), the quirky black sheep of the family, she begins to realize that Harper’s parents prize appearing successful above all else. As the days go on, Abby begins to feel suffocated and hurt by Harper’s lies to her family. She leans on the long distance support of her best friend John (Daniel Levy) back in Pittsburgh, and, surprisingly, connects with Harper’s ex, Riley (Aubrey Plaza). As the heterosexual charade drags on and the family drama mounts, Abby begins to wonder if she can stay with someone who isn’t ready to live their true self. 

Happiest Season’s humor is broad, almost caricature-like, with Harper and her family exhibiting their upper middle class lifestyle to an absurd degree. I was reminded of Luis Buñuel’s later works (think The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie), where the social mores and morality of the petit bourgeois are the primary targets of the film’s punchlines. From Sloane and her husband insisting they don’t make gift baskets, but rather “curated gift experiences inside of handmade, reclaimed wood vessels,” to a socialite not remembering Abby despite multiple interactions the night before, the superficiality at the heart of the juncture between old money and new social media is constant fodder for Duvall. The standout is Tipper’s obsession over curating the perfect Instagram feed, which feels both cartoonish and a little too realistic.

Happiest Season’s humor is broad, almost caricature-like, with Harper and her family exhibiting their upper middle class lifestyle to an absurd degree

While most of the humor is situational and observational, Duvall doesn’t shy away from more physical comedy, like an early scene where Abby falls off a roof in a surprisingly humorous moment. Some running gags are excessive, especially the family’s continuous dumping on Jane, and sometimes the bits seem completely out of left field, like an off-tone encounter between Abby and mall cops. Despite these occasional missed beats, Season keeps the chuckles coming throughout. 

Stewart, often unfairly maligned for wooden acting, brings warmth and realism to Abby. She mainly serves as a comic foil to the craziness around her, and her facial expressions as she reacts to the straight people she’s stuck with gives as many laughs as the punchlines. Though she has great chemistry with Davis, he scenes that Stewart shares with Plaza were by far my favorite. Plaza’s characteristic sardonic humor is balanced with a lot of heart and understanding, and the scene that Abby and Riley share in the local gay bar is one of the sweetest of the film. My Christmas wish is for those two characters ended up together.  In the supporting cast, Steenburgen’s portrayal of Tipper is energetic and provides a constant source of comedy to keep laughs going. Levy also fills a similar role, bringing the same frenetic energy as his breakout role of David from Schitt’s Creek. 

While Happiest Season’s happy ending is a foregone conclusion – it is a Christmas movie after all – there is still more depth than a lot of cliched holiday fare. Most important is the way it doesn’t absolve Harper from her harmful behavior pushing Abby back into the closet, while also reminding us that coming out is a process that is different for everyone. At face value, the idea of a family being that against a GLBTQ+ child seems almost absurd in the year 2020, but this conception is also colored by where I live and who I leave near. Not only could this movie help those in the closet come out, it reminds those of us long out to cut people some slack in their coming out journey. Beyond the LBGTQ+ themes, the anxiety over being introduced to a significant other’s family, and the awkwardness of being thrust into someone else’s family traditions for the first time, are relatable to just about anyone.

Happiest Season premieres on Hulu November 25th.

Happiest Season Trailer:

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