'Happiest Season': Film Review

HAPPIEST SEASON
Courtesy of Sony Pictures

From left: Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis in 'Happiest Season'

Don we now our gay apparel.
11/25/2020

Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis play a lesbian couple rattling the closet door during a family holiday visit in Clea DuVall's queer spin on the Christmas rom-com, bowing on Hulu.

In one of the more amusingly uncharitable moments of a character whose brittle undercarriage keeps peeking through the fastidiously composed veneer of the warm, welcoming homemaker, Mary Steenburgen says as her daughter's guest for the holidays stomps angrily out of the room, "She is very heavy-footed." Fortunately, the opposite applies to co-writer and director Clea DuVall; her light touch with both comedy and drama is essential to what makes Happiest Season so captivating. The movie's conventional nature turns out to be a virtue, staking a queer claim on an American Christmas tradition in which LGBTQ characters have long been relegated to the sidelines.

While the release will go out internationally under Sony's TriStar label and eOne, domestic rights were sold to Hulu due to the ongoing challenges of the U.S. theatrical market. The glossy package — shot with an attractive sheen, sprinkled with Christmas songs and showcasing a winning ensemble led with a disarming mix of coolness and vulnerability by the always magnetic Kristen Stewart — is an excellent home-entertainment option for audiences craving a little flavor with their eggnog. Given the shortage of inclusive takes on the genre, it has the potential to become a holiday perennial.

In that regard, the one area where the script by DuVall and Mary Holland feels a touch coy might turn out to be a blessing. Stewart's character Abigail accepts the impulse invitation of her Pittsburgh journalist girlfriend Harper (Mackenzie Davis) to accompany her home to spend Christmas with her family in her nearby Pennsylvania hometown. Harper's father Ted Caldwell (Victor Garber) is a city councilman running for mayor and her mother Tipper (Steenburgen) is busily taking snaps for an Instagram feed "to give voters a peek behind the curtain." Abby plans to propose on Christmas morning, but only once they're on their way does it emerge that Harper has not come out to her conservative parents.

It's conspicuous that the word "Republican" — let alone the word "Trump" — is never mentioned, even if touches like Ted's disapproving mention of the "lifestyle choice" of a country club crony's lesbian daughter read as broad indications of his politics. The degree to which Harper seems involved in his campaign, particularly in his efforts to secure the backing of an influential donor (Ana Gasteyer), casts a shadow over her character's appeal to hip, unimpeachably liberal Abby.

Maybe soft-pedaling the politics makes sense, especially given that the inevitable happy ending — with its smoothly incorporated message of acceptance, reconciliation and unconditional love — plays like a sweet antidote to the current bitterly divided climate. In any case, DuVall deserves credit for depicting conservatives without demonizing them for their attitudes; Ted and Tipper can be abrasive, but they're not so awful as to be irredeemable.

It's to the film's benefit, also, that while this is unequivocally a gay-themed holiday rom-com, it will be relatable to anyone who has ever experienced the anxiety of meeting a partner's family for the first time. That fear of being rejected and remaining an outsider is universal.

With Abigail, those worries are compounded by the denial of her relationship, passing herself off as Harper's orphaned roommate who has no family to visit. The fact that she lost her parents at 19 doesn't register, so there are funny moments throughout where the patronizing Caldwells treat Abby like a charity-case urchin out of Dickens.

The script shows a sharp eye for humorous character detail, so we get a clear sense not only of how much Ted's political ambitions consume the family but also how much Harper and her two sisters have grown up competing to be the golden child of parents who place inordinate importance on appearances. Garber makes self-absorbed Ted brisk and businesslike, turning on the charm as required, while Steenburgen's controlling Tipper works hard at projecting the air of the serene perfectionist, only showing the cracks when her plans go askew.

Harper's chief rival for her parents' approval is Sloane (Alison Brie), an uptight ice queen married to Eric (Burl Moseley), with impeccably dressed mixed-race twin children, Magnus and Matilda (Anis and Asiyih N'Dobe), who are as chilly and distant as their mother. Sloane and Eric have stepped away from lawyering to start a company that creates "curated gift experiences," a career swerve of which Tipper is dismissive.

Harper and Sloane's sister Jane (co-writer Holland) is an intense oddball (think Tony Hale's character on Arrested Development) who has spent the past 10 years working on a fantasy novel. She may be awkward, but she's the one sister who seems completely comfortable with who she is, despite her parents having given up on her. The degree to which Jane is unseen by the rest of the family is played for laughs but neatly flipped for poignancy in the third act when she gets fed up with being overlooked.

Beyond the Caldwells, the film winks openly at the trope of the gay best friend by giving Abby a close confidant in John (Dan Levy), who functions as both her surrogate sibling and the film's voice of queer reason. He frowns on her pursuit of heteronormativity in planning to marry Harper, but he provides support by phone throughout her ordeal, physically coming to the rescue at a crucial point late in the action in strict accordance with the rules of the genre.

There's also Harper's ex-boyfriend Connor (Jake McDorman), whose unannounced arrival at a family dinner suggests Tipper's manipulative hand at work, making Abby feel more marginalized. More significantly, Harper's secret first girlfriend Riley (Aubrey Plaza) keeps popping up, lending a sympathetic ear to Abby when she's feeling shut out. The glint of mischief that is such an integral part of Plaza's screen persona teases out expectations of romantic chaos. But while Riley serves to validate Abby's doubts and needle Harper's jealousy, it's refreshing that she ultimately is a positive force in the story.

The friction that tests Harper and Abby's relationship is deftly developed in the script, and Davis (whose appeal continues to blossom post-Halt and Catch Fire) nails a tricky balance between neglecting her girlfriend and being fearful of losing her family's love and respect. Her struggle to come out of hiding is the plot's engine, but it's Stewart's emotionally transparent Abby that gives the movie its soulful sweet center. She looks spectacular with a messy blond dye job and a wardrobe of effortlessly chic suits and baggy sweaters. But there's a touching innocence in her character's absolute belief in the love she shares with Harper, and the crushing hurt she absorbs when their union seems broken.

There's choice work across the supporting cast. Brie and Holland are especially hilarious, Steenburgen is a droll delight and Plaza's deadpan delivery keeps you guessing about her character's intentions. Schitt's Creek fans will get a kick out of Levy, who gets many of the best lines even if the laughs tend to be less about zingers than observational humor.

The skills that DuVall showed in her first feature as director, 2016's The Intervention, have evolved pleasingly here with the enhancement of a better script that's less indebted to a previous model — in that case The Big Chill. The ironically titled Happiest Season has more fun playing with the old-fashioned formula of the family holiday movie. The director is in firm command, and the fluid transitions of editor Melissa Bretherton inject buoyancy and tenderness into the passage from rocky disclosures to rosy conclusion.

Given DuVall's background as an actor it's unsurprising she draws such engaging work from her cast, with tasty individual characterizations, but more importantly, a group dynamic that's both lively and believable. The Caldwells really do convey the shared history of a family unit with the usual mix of affection and animosity. And there's genuine emotional investment in watching Abigail navigate the clan, wondering if she'll ever be embraced by them or if she even truly knows Harper. Of course things will work out because the genre demands it, so it's gratifying that the movie actually earns its heartwarming outcome.

Production company: TriStar Pictures, eOne, Temple Hill
Distributor: Hulu/Sony
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Daniel Levy, Victor Garber, Mary Steenburgen, Mary Holland, Ana Gasteyer, Burl Moseley, Jake McDorman, Sarayu Blue, Asiyih N’Dobe, Anis N’Dobe
Director: Clea DuVall
Screenwriters: Clea DuVall, Mary Holland; story by DuVall
Producers: Isaac Klausner, Marty Bowen
Executive producers: Wyck Godfrey, Jonathan McCoy
Director of photography: John Guleserian

Production designer: Theresa Guleserian
Costume designer: Kathleen Felix-Hager
Music: Amie Doherty
Editor: Melissa Bretherton
Casting: Rich Delia
Rated PG-13, 102 minutes