Happiest Season is a beautifully told lesbian holiday rom-com that dresses itself up in the tropes of the genre while refitting those tropes to a queer narrative.Thefilmunderstands its significance as the first pebble hurled into an ocean, aiming to create a ripple that allows other stories to be told in its wake, about people outside of the boundaries defined by the heteronormative identity of the genre. And yet, while it is burdened by the weight of representation, being the first mainstream queer Christmas movie, it doesn’t allow itself to suffocate under the expectations of that burden. Instead, what writer/director Clea DuVall aims for is a film that speaks on an experience’s specificity. While that experience isn’t universal, the emotional reverberations can transcend barriers and, in turn, create a commonality around its empathy.
Happiest Season isn’t just a coming out story. It is a coming-out story about the spectrum of stories that exist within the realm of this idea of being terrified to reveal who you are to those you love because you’re not sure if they will accept you. It is as charming and delightful as any other holiday rom-com that traffics in the warm delights of the Christmas spirit, but it is also beautiful and sad and wistful.
Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis star as Abby and Harper, a couple who have been dating for close to a year when Christmas rolls around. In a burst of spontaneity egged on by a wonderful night out, Harper invites Abby to spend the holidays with her and her family in Harper’s hometown just outside of Pittsburgh. What complicates things, however, is that Harper hasn’t come out to her conservative family yet, and her father is running for mayor. Their plan becomes to masquerade as straight roommates for the 5-day trip, and then once the holidays are over, Harper can then break the news.
Dan Levy plays John, Abby’s friend who is pet sitting while dishing out monologues about the patriarchy over the phone. In any other movie, this character is the stereotypical gay best friend whose one character quirk would be his sexuality. A trope that reminds us that while gay people live in the world, they aren’t significant enough to lead our stories. In Happiest Season, however, Levy gets to be funny and witty while also being emotionally involved and human, who is allowed to give a sincere monologue when speaking to Abby about the spectrum of coming out stories that will bring a tear to your eye.
Alison Brie is Harper’s sister, Sloan, competing with Harper for her father’s affection. Her place within this family dynamic is to showcase her own family to project this wholesome touch to the campaign. Mary Holland is Jane, Harper’s younger sister, who is the most undamaged of the three. She serves as the comic relief for her compassion, which feels uncomfortable because she is not developed beyond basic conventions. Victor Garber stars as the father, who is so self-obsessed that he hasn’t even noticed how he has hurt his children.
There is an authenticity to how Happiest Season tackles this idea of the toxic familial structure where love has to be won or lost and not inherent. Where this pursuit of perfection forces daughters to hide themselves because of their identity; their secrets, their unhappiness isn’t part of the plans. It is a film about Harper’s acceptance of her role, and that role contradicts the Harper that Abby has come to know for the past year, and where exactly does that leave them?
When watching a movie, I think it is necessary to remember that we are silent spectators, dropping in to observe another life for a few hours. And in being spectators, watching at a safe distance, we have the context of our own experience and our perspective to add to our observations, but the characters on the screen are bereft of that context. They live through an incident on the screen that we have either never experienced or experienced and are now the beneficiaries of hindsight. So when Harper does slide back into the competitive daughter role who sparks up conversations with an ex-boyfriend, we have to remind ourselves of the way this story has been approached on the screen and not of our judgement of these characters and their decisions. What is so impressive about Happiest Season is how non-judgmental it is. Harper does treat Abby poorly sometimes, and Harper does make bad decisions. She is unlikable. But at the same time, the film goes out of its way to make us understand her perspective.
When Harper yells at Abby, “I’m not hiding you, I’m hiding me!” during an argument, it breaks your heart because Harper gets caught between the people she loves, and no matter what decision she makes, she is in danger of losing somebody that she can’t lose. Abby is dealing with the idea of being shoved back in the closet while Harper is trying to navigate this minefield of her family who might detest her for revealing who she is. Clea DuVall takes the time to make us understand both of them. We are not pitting two experiences against each other and trying to pick which one works for us and which one doesn’t. Instead, we are presented with different perspectives on this idea of coming out, and both are equally valid. This simplicity is beautiful and profound.
What isn’t handled well, however, is the ending, which wraps everything up in a neat little package and tries to make everyone happy, and in turn, certain aspects do feel disingenuous. And yet, this is one of those movies where the journey matters more than the destination. When looking back, the last five minutes aren’t the ones circulating my head, and the last five minutes don’t intrude upon what I love about the previous 107. Happiest Season is subversive and transgressive for the simple act of existing.
Still, DuVall goes the extra step by allowing us the opportunity to listen in on conversations and observe the intricacies of a specific experience that have been absent from a genre built on the idea of a wholesome kind of warmth. Happiest Season confronts them head-on with a lesbian rom-com wrapped in the same holiday season wholesome family drama that they love while still having conversations that are specific to a particular experience and creating a non-judgmental space for those conversations to exist. Happiest Season isn’t the end all be all in terms of queer holiday stories, but it is an excellent first step.
Review: Happiest Season
Happiest Season is not the end all be all of queer holiday stories, but an excellent first step.