Happiest Season is Clea DuVall’s second film as a director, and it was intended for release in theaters over the holidays but was sold to Hulu in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. And it’s just the kind of crowd-pleaser that could play remarkably well to big audiences, and it’s also the kind of uplifting charmer audiences could desperately use right now. It also reminds me of one of my favorite films of the last decade, Love, Simon, which applied an LGBT romance to a familiar backdrop, the teen coming of age movie. But this one is even more quietly radical; it’s an LGBT Christmas rom-com. And I’m so glad it’s as good as I’d hoped.
Abby (Kristen Stewart) is planning to go with her girlfriend Harper (Mackenzie Davis) to her family’s house for Christmas. Abby’s parents are both dead, and she doesn’t like to celebrate the holidays, but she goes because it’s important to Harper and she wants to propose on Christmas morning. However, on the way there, Harper tells Abby that she’s not out to her family, and she told her parents she’s bringing her friend home for Christmas because she’s an orphan who has nowhere else to be during the holidays.
The central relationship of Happiest Season is kind of toxic and yet you desperately want these two ladies to figure something out. You can’t be mad at Harper, because the closet is rooted in internal trauma, and it’s established early on how these parents have screwed up their children. Sloane (Alison Brie) and Jane (Mary Holland) play Harper’s sisters, one an overachiever and the other a wacky disappointment, and they have their baggage with their parents and each other that have conditioned their own life choices and what their lives have become as adults.
You can be frustrated with the way Harper behaves, but you can’t exactly hate her for it, even as we meet her old flame Riley (Aubrey Plaza), who has her own stories to tell about how this behavior is a pattern for Harper. It also complicates the situation that Kristen Stewart and Aubrey Plaza have insane chemistry together, and everyone on Twitter has decided that Abby can do better than Harper – the answer is right in front of you, girl!, etc. I don’t think that’s intended, because ultimately you do want this relationship to work out, even as all of the script’s stressful obstacles are thrown at it. It’s an enormous credit to this screenplay how invested you are in these character’s lives from the get-go, however.
Kristen Stewart has never been better, and I truly think she’s blossomed so much as an actress since she came out publicly. She seems to have much more confidence onscreen, and she’s much better in roles like this that allow her to be funny. Between this and Elizabeth Banks’ Charlie’s Angels, Stewart has proven what a gifted comedic actress she is, and I hope she gets to do more work like this soon.
Dan Levy, who is at the tail-end of a very good year after winning a bunch of better-late-than-never Emmys for the marvelous final season of Schitt’s Creek, plays Abby’s friend John, and he’s mainly used as a comedic relief device, but he delivers a no-dry-eye-in-the-house monologue near the end that grounds the film emotionally. He’s not in the film enough, and I’d love to see more leading work from him, but I feel like this is just the beginning for Dan Levy.
Mary Steenburgen and Victor Garber play Harper’s parents, and they ultimately seem like sweet people, however, we all know people like this – people who put on a very phony façade only to be complete monsters underneath. Garber is running for mayor, and their conservative, super WASP-y values have colored the way the family relates to each other, and everyone has something to hide and no one is truly comfortable with each other.
Clea DuVall has somehow created a magical unicorn here – Happiest Season is an LGBT romance that’s accessible enough to feel like any other love story, a sentimental Christmas movie that gives you the warm fuzzies you want, but never touches anything resembling maudlin, and an impressive script, co-written with scene-stealer Mary Holland, that gives every member of its starry ensemble equal room to shine. There are a lot of big names here, and everyone gets a scene-stealing moment that leaves a lasting impression.
Even though I would like this film to play in front of audiences in theaters, because it would be such a big deal for the LGBT Christmas movie to be a massive box office hit, I realize that it will probably find a larger audience on a streaming service like Hulu, and it arrives at just the right time. Happiest Season so easily could have gone so wrong. It could have been emotionally manipulative, clichéd, and mawkish. Instead, it’s a laugh-out-loud funny, genuinely surprising, and utterly heartfelt delight that earns every laugh and maybe even a few tears. It’s one of those Christmas movies I’ll revisit every holiday season.