‘Tis the season for the Christmas rom-com! While streaming services and the ever-cringe Hallmark network churn out another barrage of feel good films chock full of corny dialogue and holiday hijinks, Clea DuVall took the gingerbread cookie cutter film formula and made it a little… gayer.
In her second directorial effort since 2016’s The Intervention, DuVall’s tinsel toting holiday film Happiest Season centres on Abby Holland (Kristen Stewart) and Harper Caldwell (Mackenzie Davis), a lesbian couple living in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, as they navigate the holiday season with Harper’s oblivious and conservative family; father Ted (Victor Garber), mother Tipper (Mary Steenburgen), and sisters Jane (Mary Holland) and Sloane (Alison Brie).
The film starts innocently and sweetly enough, with a stellar cameo from comedienne Michelle Buteau and our loved-up ladies trespassing onto someone’s property to get a better view of the neighbourhood light display. Harper, caught up in the moment and her emotions, invites Abby home for Christmas so they can celebrate the season together. Abby, seeing this display of intimacy as a sign, intends to use the trip to propose. But as Harper reveals on the drive to her small and snooty hometown that there’s one big problem; her family doesn’t know she’s gay and a blindsided Abby needs to pretend to be straight for 5 whole days. “What could go wrong?” Abby asks. So many things.
Happiest Season doesn’t deviate far from the holiday rom-com formula, though this is by no means a fault. The plot familiarity of secrets, lies, and a traditional white Christmas (literally and figuratively speaking. Upper class white family in a snowy northern state, anyone?) is digestible, punctuated by well-executed slapstick-adjacent physical comedy between Harper and Sloane, over-the-top and hilarious behaviour from Jane (who, quite frankly, is the most charming member of the Caldwell family and Holland’s casting here was truly a stroke of genius), awkward run-ins with exes and clandestine intra-house bed-hopping. The sibling one-upmanship on constant display and parental meddling from Tipper elicit genuinely hearty laughs, as does the running commentary on how absurd the whole situation is from Abby’s friend John (Dan Levy) – but Happiest Season’s real charm may actually lay in its most uncomfortable moments.
The way DuVall wants her audience to look at each character with one eye tuned to critical feels reminiscent of Thomas Bezucha’s 2005 holiday rom-com The Family Stone. Bezucha’s background characters were beautifully crafted to be both endearing and frustrating as they were constantly put into situations that would reveal some of their worst qualities as people while simultaneously showing how these toxic traits mentally and physically affected his protagonist.
Like The Family Stone, Happiest Season makes no effort to try and disguise how emotionally taxing the whole experience is for Abby, which thankfully gives this humble genre film some actual depth. Having been relegated to a bedroom in the basement by the Caldwell matriarch and forced to watch in discomfort as the woman she loves slips seamlessly back into a life she doesn’t exist in, Abby is othered from the moment she arrives. Forced to lie for Harper, Abby trips and stumbles over her words and the Caldwell women in frequent succession. The role of Abby and her little nuances of behaviour were surely tailor-made for Stewart, whose soft-spoken and oft awkward real-life mannerisms give Abby true dimension. Stewart, undeniably, appears at her most comfortable within this role and makes Abby feel well-lived in and familiar. Her soft, coy smiles and secret loving glances towards Harper are heartwarming, and Stewart’s delicate delivery of gradual heartbreak means we are also guided through the pain with her when she is pushed away with the Caldwell’s words, actions, and especially when Harper’s self-preservation wins out over the truth.
Not content to simply allow Harper to be framed as the ‘villain’ of the story, exempt from redemption, Davis also gives her role some real meat for audiences to chew on. The contrast between Harper with Abby, and Harper with her family is not noticeable at first, until suddenly it’s so present, it’s uncomfortable. It’s obvious from the film’s opening scene that Harper loves Abby dearly, and it’s also clear as the plot unwinds that Harper is terrified of her family knowing her secrets. It’s a fear many queer kids know all too well; will the truth about me destroy this relationship? What if they stop loving me? What if we can’t recover?
Harper is no doubt loved by her family, but her parents’ only thoughts centre around their status in the community and her dad’s political aspirations, turning up their noses at anything seemingly uncouth. The way Tipper and Ted talk about Sloane’s change in career as a loss of potential, or how Harper’s classmate, and secret ex-girlfriend, Riley’s new career as a doctor is somehow redeeming her from her gay ‘lifestyle’ choices, is enough to make viewers look at Harper with understanding rather than disdain. Through Harper’s negligent attitude of Abby or snide words, we are shown the physical manifestation of someone who is in a constant state of fight or flight, willing to burn everything if it means protecting herself from scorn and DuVall makes it a point to explain (through a really sweet and moving performance from Levy) that someone in this situation is not an inherently bad or shitty person.
All this now considered, we must remember that what DuVall has written and directed here is a Christmas movie intended to leave audiences with the warm and fuzzies à la The Holiday or Love Actually, so we do still get the happy ending we’re accustomed to within this genre, and though the payoff feels a little like it wasn’t fully earned, it does leave ends tied in a fairly neat gift ribbon.
Happiest Season is by no means perfect – there will be moments where our conviction in Harper and Abby’s relationship wobbles – but it is, finally, the update that this genre so desperately needs.