“Happiest Season” Review: The gayest Yuletide has ever been

Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis star in a Christmas film like no other.

Starring Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Dan Levy, Mary Holland, Victor Garber, and Mary Steenburgen

In a year such as 2020, one might be forgiven for resigning oneself to the onslaught of unpalatable news. Fortunately, however, Happiest Season is a glittering gem delivered to us in 2020’s dying throws. What’s considerable about Happiest Season is the way that so much of it feels familiar. Taking the partner home to meet the rest of the family features in many Christmas films, as our protagonists find themselves surrounded by picturesque, snowy vistas and inhabiting an obscenely large house. Inevitably, during the course of the movie, the pair will question whether they really belong together, the outsider baffled by the way that their beloved alters their behaviour when in their childhood home, while they get used to the strange traditions of the family they are being welcomed into. Even though it features these elements of familiarity and comfort, however, Happiest Season sets itself apart in one incredibly large way: its main love story is gay.

Released straight to streaming, as is par for the course in current times, Happiest Season is, in fact, the perfect film to cuddle up with on the sofa. It is a shame, however, that there isn’t the opportunity to prove its legitimacy within Hollywood through a box office performance, as this would doubtless encourage more film executives to take a chance on LGBT plot lines in the mainstream lens. Even though streaming services tend to be quite cagey on this front, early reports are seeming positive.

Abby (Kristen Stewart) and girlfriend Harper (Mackenzie Davis) are love’s young dream. When it comes to the holidays, however, they find themselves quite opposed. Abby, having lost her parents ten years before during the Christmas season, is quite content with not celebrating, but Harper, suitably obsessed with Christmas, and also fairly intoxicated, invites Abby to her family’s house for the festive period. Abby enthusiastically agrees, planning on asking Harper to marry her, but it soon transpires that the trip to meet the parents will be far from simple: they have no idea that Harper is a lesbian. As a result, Abby is introduced as Harper’s orphaned roommate, and thus, the comedy is born.

Cue all of the fun japes that one would expect from a festive rom-com: sneaking into each other’s bedrooms, arguments between siblings, awkward situations with the parents, and mischievous children – just with the added stress of Harper and Abby’s deception being uncovered. Despite all of the typical fare that one expects from such a film, however, Happiest Season manages to deliver quite an emotional, authentic punch. There’s never a moment that feels sensationalised or ingenuine. Even though there is the argument to making an LGBT film that isn’t wholly about its characters being gay, or about the stress of coming out, it is handled here really well. The exploration of a family where everybody is constrained into their respective roles is truly fascinating, and we see that reflected in Harper and her sisters as they battle for parental approval. Harper’s journey to coming out is never trivialised or made to seem less than what it is, and the film makes an important distinction between Harper’s love for Abby, and her own journey of self-acceptance.

Kristen Stewart is on fine form throughout the movie. Her deadpan, grounded delivery throughout helps to reliably convey the struggle throughout all of the farcical madness that occurs around her. What’s more, she also manages to deliver on the emotional, dramatic material and earns the audience’s sympathy very early on. Mackenzie Davis is also brilliant as Harper and manages to portray a fantastic, legitimate chemistry with Stewart, as well as her character’s own personal struggle, as she slots herself back into the role that she assumed during her childhood, while attempting to break free and be true to herself.

As the pair navigate the quagmire of Harper’s family, the film does wobble dangerously close to portraying the couple as incompatible. Even though Harper is acting out of fear for her secret being discovered, she does treat Abby incredibly badly at multiple points throughout the film and, though Harper ultimately redeems herself, her lack of communication and ability to open up to Abby does put unnecessary walls between the two.

Other highlights throughout the film is Mary Holland’s portrayal of Harper’s wacky sister Jane, who seems to be excluded from the family purely because the rest think that she is simple. Still, her constant talking of the book series that she is creating is truly mind boggling, and her comedic timing is second to none. Dan Levy is also a nice complement to Stewart’s Abby, providing his stereotypical blasé brand of humour, as well as delivering some emotional dialogue about the different nature of people’s coming out stories. Finally, Aubrey Plaza is wonderful as Harper’s ex Riley, which adds an interesting dimension to the plot as Abby and Riley talk about their respective difficulties that stem from being with Harper while she is hiding her true self from her family.

Throughout the film, the concept of self censorship and reducing one’s full self around the family is bound to be especially resonant with queer viewers, even those from the most accepting families. It is a way of queer existence to feel the need to diminish oneself in other company, whether for fear of non-acceptance or downright aggression: a principle reason why queer-only spaces are so vital in communities to foster a feeling of safety.

Ultimately, Happiest Season is a brilliant watch. Not only is it wonderfully entertaining, but it’s incredibly interesting in the family dynamics that it portrays. Wonderfully directed, with its stereotypical Christmas comfort, by Clea DuVall, and well-written in concert with Mary Holland, Happiest Season is the next contender for your holiday watchlist.

Happiest Season is available to buy and rent online now.

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