“Will you shut up and follow me please?” If Mackenzie Davis put this question to you, you’d say “yes” and shuffle up the scaffolding on a stranger’s home just to sit with her and enjoy a breathtaking view of a town aglow with holiday lights. Then you would tumble off the stranger’s roof like sloughing snow and interrupt said strangers’ Christmas-themed BDSM. You would also be Kristen Stewart and you would be co-starring in Happiest Season, director/co-writer Clea Duvall’s sophomore follow-up to her 2016 debut The Intervention, which reclaims the holiday movie for LGBTQ cinema.
Stewart’s casting alone signals an intention to melt the cheese that’s characteristic of the seasonal niche. Happiest Season does so over well-considered and multifaceted thoughts on queer identity, like what the subtle violence of being trapped in the closet can do to a person’s spirit. Pittsburgh political reporter Harper Caldwell (Davis) has plans to head home for Christmas to spend it with her family. Unlike the year prior, she’s decided to invite her girlfriend Abby (Stewart) along for the trip. The Caldwells’ annual Christmas bash is the stuff of legends and, more importantly, Harper wants to introduce her partner to her parents, city councilman/mayor aspirant Ted (Victor Garber) and Tipper (Mary Steenburgen).
Of course, there’s the catch: Harper hasn’t told mom and dad about Abby, or that she’s gay. Meanwhile she has told Abby the exact opposite, and drops this grenade in Abby’s lap when they’re a blink away from meeting the folks. Coltish lesbian hijinks ensue. Abby poses as Harper’s roommate, lies about dating scads of dudes (including her most recent ex, a milkman), and altogether tries gamely to pass herself off as straight. It works. Duvall doesn’t have a ton of faith in fundamentally hetero people possessing a functional gaydar, and besides that, she isn’t making The Wedding Banquet. Ignorance is a condition she must actively maintain. But Harper’s inevitable revelation of her sexual orientation is besides the point. Happiest Season functions primarily as insight into queer experience over hetero perspective.
What to do when you’re out and proud until you’re at home with your parents? Abby is at first supportive of Harper’s plan: Keep the relationship mum until after New Year’s. But Happiest Season lets her contentment decay over passing days as family interactions teeter more and more on the brink of disaster. Harper, for instance, has an outwardly hostile dynamic with her younger sister Sloane (Alison Brie) and a dynamic with their youngest sister Jane (Mary Holland, also the film’s co-writer) best described as “benignly neglectful.” To her parents, specifically Ted, she’s a trophy, a secret weapon to trot out in social situations where her refinement and professional success ingratiate him with potential donors and allies. She doesn’t get to have a personality. She’s only given enough room to be a punching bag or a step ladder. Duvall dramatizes that tension through Harper’s actions but lets the audience see it through Abby’s eyes, which stay bewildered and glassy as soon as they arrive at Ted and Tipper’s place. What Harper has with them is antithetical to what Abby had with her own late parents. (Her status as an orphan is a running gag throughout. She’s Margot Tenenbaum and everyone else is Royal.)
The shock is essential. Duvall’s gazing at an entire spectrum of coming out stories from good, like Abby’s, to the worst, like her best friend John’s (Dan Levy). John pops up for comic levity in Happiest Season’s heavier moments, bitching about the patriarchy in one breath but, in others, enlightening Abby on the many ways coming out can go. His own dad kicked him out and refused to speak with him for 13 years. Terror is a keyword. The film’s grounded sobriety lasts long enough for a reprieve from the still-present cornball Christmas melodrama, which Duvall stages with the relish of someone who appreciates that melodrama in spite of themselves. But frankly, if every Hallmark movie was this over-the-top hilarious, they’d all at least be watchable as background noise, but then we’d have less reason to appreciate Duvall’s appropriation of their core components in Happiest Season.
Stewart, continuing to prove wrong all the smug remarks about her one-dimensional dourness starting around 2008, remains a treasure. She’s lively, lovely, and having a wonderful time vibing with Davis. The latter ends up shouldering juicier theatrical speeches and breakdowns as Harper unravels under the dual pressure of being the daughter she thinks her parents want and being the girlfriend she wants to be. The ensemble keeps things fresh throughout these conventional plot beats, with Holland coming out ahead as Duvall’s friction-seeking SRBM. Anytime the atmosphere chafes, Holland flies into the room and annihilates it with adorable, well-meaning awkwardness. She’s a gift, but the whole cast glitters in this holiday fare. Everyone’s tuned to Duvall’s wavelength, playing their human sides while keeping the mood appropriately hammy and saccharine—just sweet enough without killing the pancreas.
And that’s the film’s secondary message: It’s okay to like Christmas schmaltz. The greater message, of course, is that it’s okay to struggle with the sometimes-bruising process of coming out. Duvall dovetails the seasonal pap with her characters’ pain, treating it like ointment for their mellowing emotional stings. The message isn’t just about liking Christmas. The message is that everybody deserves a Christmas movie.
Director: Clea Duvall
Writer: Clea Duvall, Mary Holland
Starring: Mackenzie Davis, Kristen Stewart, Mary Steeburgen, Alison Brie, Dan Levy, Mary Holland, Victor Garber, Aubrey Plaza, Burl Moseley, Jake McDorman
Release Date: November 25, 2020 (Hulu)
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.