Movie Review: ‘Happiest Season’ Is a Familiar Gift In A New Package
Director: Clea DuVall
Writer: Clea DuVall, Mary Holland
Stars: Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Dan Levy, Mary Holland, Victor Garber, Mary Steenburgen
Synopsis: A young woman with a plan to propose to her girlfriend while at her family’s annual holiday party discovers her partner hasn’t yet come out to her conservative parents.
The romantic comedy, over the years, has been much maligned. There are many reasons for this, ranging from simply misogyny (the “chick flick”, etc) to bending too far into its own cliches. But with streaming offering low risk and high reward for relatively low budget films, the romantic comedy has found a home outside of multiplex fare like Star Wars and comic book films. And one could argue that the holidays offer a perfect setting for this genre. After all, what better time of year to dive into pure sentiment and the idea of everlasting love? Yet another reason for the downfall of romantic comedies could be that the bigger budget versions have shied away from differing representation. Yes, there are many romantic comedies with leads that are people of color or LGBTQ, but how many have been given an actual push? That is usually saved for terrible Matthew McConaughey vehicles, for some reason.
But this brings us to Happiest Season, an original LGBTQ romantic comedy set during the Christmas holiday, streaming on Hulu. Happiest Season follows a supposedly stable lesbian couple, Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis). They are so happy, in fact, that Abby plans to pop the big question after agreeing to spend Christmas with Harper’s family. All of this, despite hating Christmas after losing both of her parents during that holiday. Unfortunately, on the drive there, Abby learns that Harper never actually came out as a lesbian to her family. This, of course, sets everything in motion, forcing Abby to pretend she is simply a roommate, and awkward hilarity ensues.
Stewart and Davis have a comfortable, easy chemistry together, though it feels like it is lacking in passion. But that doesn’t hurt the film much, because as she proved in the criminally underseen Charlie’s Angels reboot, Stewart has a knack for comedy. This is a very different role, but her hesitant (but purposeful) choices absolutely ring true as a partner trying desperately to be adored by her hopefully soon to be in-laws. Davis is less charming in the partnership, which makes sense because her choices are the barrier to the couple truly connecting.
But the supporting players really make Happiest Season memorable. Abby’s best friend, John (Daniel Levy) provides the most laugh out loud moments, playing a very similar character to his role on Schitt’s Creek (and possibly in his real life?) Strikingly, he is tasked with a wordy speech about coming out that, if you have gone through it, or even know someone who has, will certainly touch your heart. Levy handles the emotional weight easily and allows the audience to root for a character that may be hard to reach after many mistakes. And the always wonderful Aubrey Plaza makes perhaps the most memorable impression as Riley, Harper’s high school ex-girlfriend. And interestingly, her part to play may be the most divisive. Her friendship and flirtation that builds with Abby may lead the audience to angle towards these two as a relationship. Both Plaza and Stewart lean into this without making it obvious, leaving people to wonder what could be at every turn.
Besides the romance, this is secondarily a family comedy. Harper’s mother (Mary Steenburgen), father (Victor Garber), and sisters Sloane (Alison Brie) and Jane (Mary Holland) all have ample opportunities to shine both dramatically and comedically. Steenburgen is clearly having a great time playing the passive aggressive mother, even if it quickly tips over into cruelty for very little reason. And honestly, I would watch an entire movie focusing on Daniel Levy and Steenburgen, who sadly only share one brief scene together. Brie and Holland, playing very different sisters make the most of their time on screen, nearly leaving Davis flailing from a performance perspective.
Happiest Season is certainly far from perfect. Writer and director Clea DuVall employs a pretty standard romantic comedy structure, but despite a 101-minute runtime, feels slightly rushed. The big mistake and breakup happens quite late, and frankly, goes too far. Many audience members will find it hard to forgive, despite the aforementioned Levy’s best efforts. That lateness also allows precious little time for a forgiveness arc, and that is the most rushed moment of all. It depends purely on believing in this relationship and Stewart’s physical performance. It half works, and whether that’s enough will likely depend on both your feelings about the genre and if you buy into the original relationship. In Happiest Season’s rush to bring exciting supporting characters, it places nearly all apparent faults squarely on one of the protagonists.
Happiest Season delivers everything you should expect. It is romantic, awkward, full of beautiful people, and offers several moments that are genuinely funny enough to make the audience more than chuckle. It also features half of a couple that is difficult to like, but in this writer’s opinion, does just enough to explain away this problem. Love is hard. Coming out is harder. And both of these journeys are both incredibly important and different for every person on them. Happiest Season manages to pull at the heartstrings in these parallel stories and leave us the better for it.