Happiest Season, Hulu’s new rom-com about what happens when lesbians celebrate Christmas among their straight relatives, will surely be positioned in some corners as a victory for LGBTQ representation and the larger progressive project. The lesbians! They have a rom-com! Where they celebrate Christmas!
Or is it?
Happiest Season is, for the most part, a charming entry in one of my favorite subgenres: a comedy where a large family gathers at Christmas, and there are Many Conflicts, and maybe one sibling is about to get engaged. The focus here is on Abby (Kristen Stewart), the girlfriend of Harper (Mackenzie Davis), the daughter of a vaguely conservative, probably Republican bigwig, who is running for mayor of an unspecified city that’s kind of Pittsburgh, but you have to drive a long way from Pittsburgh to get there. Abby plans to use the Christmas holiday to propose to Harper, but Harper hasn’t told Abby one big thing: Her parents don’t know that Harper is gay.
Look, “My parents don’t know I’m gay” is a pretty big cliché in stories about queer people trying to peaceably interact with their families. But I enjoyed Happiest Season, tropes and all. Stewart and Davis make for an amazing onscreen couple, believably in love when fighting and when kissing, and I’m a sucker for any and all movies where adult children come back home for Christmas. Yet I spent much of the movie wondering whether just having a trope-laden Christmas rom-com about a lesbian couple was enough, when said lesbian couple played into all of the tropes of one of our least queer storytelling genres (not that there’s anything wrong with that!).
Should this movie instead have been about, say, Harper and Abby negotiating a Christmas celebration within a polycule? It didn’t have to be, to be sure. Formulaic stories that otherwise queer beloved storytelling tropes are still subversive in a world where very few stories allow LGBTQ people to take center stage. But Happiest Season made me wonder, more than I usually do with stories attempting to queer the mainstream, whether just subverting heteronormative storytelling tropes is enough. Does that pursuit result in stories that neither function as stories nor as depictions of queer life as it’s lived?
The politics of queer storytelling aside, there’s plenty to recommend with Happiest Season, but just as much that’s downright strange. Let’s take a look at some good, bad, and weird elements to figure out why.
Good: It might be cliché, but Happiest Season’s depiction of the “I gotta come out to my parents” story rings true
Stories about queer people coming out to their parents shouldn’t be the only queer stories we get. That almost goes without saying at this point, in the year 2020. But it’s true that queer people have to come out to their parents every single day, and it’s always hard, no matter how accepting those parents are.
As John, a gay best friend archetype played with warmth by Dan Levy of Schitt’s Creek fame, puts it to Abby late in the film, every single queer person around the globe experiences anxiety about having to come out to people we love so deeply. There’s always a “before” moment, when your heart is racing, and an “after” moment, when you know you can never take back what you just said. You just have to hope for the best from there on out.
Harper’s parents really don’t seem like they’re going to be cool with Harper coming out to them, given the big-dollar, socially conservative circles they run in. (Early in the movie, an almost inaudible snippet of dialogue refers to gay relationships as a “lifestyle choice,” to give you an idea of what these people are like.) And given how important the appearance of having a conventionally perfect family is to Harper’s dad’s mayoral campaign, there’s even more pressure on Harper to just let go and let compulsory heterosexuality sweep her away into a life where she has a husband and two kids and is miserable.
I’m not sure any of this would work without Davis, who would normally get a huge career in rom-coms based on this film, if other rom-coms even existed anymore. A scene where Harper explains to Abby precisely how hard it is to break the double consciousness that forces her to be one person around her family and another in her life with Abby is terrifically played by Davis, and it gets to an emotionally honest place that stories like this don’t always find.
Is the movie full of every cliché in the book? Yes. But because it takes place during my beloved Christmas season, and because it’s got Davis at its center, I went with it.
Bad: A lot of stuff in this movie just kinda ... happens
Clea DuVall, probably best known for her acting work in everything from But I’m a Cheerleader to The Handmaid’s Tale, both directed and co-wrote Happiest Season. It’s her second feature; the first, 2016’s Intervention, was little seen, by which I mostly mean I haven’t seen it, but it also only made $32,000 at the box office. As a queer woman herself, DuVall’s the perfect writer and director to tell this story.
For the most part, her camera stays out of the way of her actors, un-flashy to a fault. In a lot of cases, this frees up DuVall and her cast to focus on their performances, which often bears fruit (see what I said about Mackenzie Davis above) but sometimes leaves whole plotlines stranded. Harper’s older sister Sloan, for instance, is played by Alison Brie, an actor born to play overachieving older sisters, but after Sloan arrives, the movie largely forgets what to do with her. Brie’s inclusion ends up seeming a little wasted, something that is true of too many actors in this movie.
The storytelling not immediately centered on Harper and Abby’s relationship is similarly listless and lacks any specificity. Harper’s dad, Ted (Victor Garber), is just Guy Who Politicians, and his run for mayor feels like it’s taking place in a very different movie. A subplot involving Sloan and her husband, Eric (Burl Moseley), unfolds in such a way that it seems like at least 10 minutes featuring just their characters were cut from the movie.
The decision to focus on just Abby and Harper’s relationship is the right one for most of the movie, but that means every time the film lurches into rom-com shenanigans (oh wow, Harper’s family thinks Abby’s a thief thanks to a misunderstanding!), it seems a little perfunctory.
Even the title — Happiest Season — feels picked out of a hat, which is true of too much of this movie.
Good: Seriously, though, the cast is great
The performers who best succeed at rising above the film’s occasional pedestrianism are the ones used to entertaining from the sidelines. Levy, for instance, was a scene-stealer on Schitt’s Creek, and he can act his way around a scene that’s just him talking to Abby on the phone while trying to dispose of a dead pet fish.
Similarly, Mary Steenburgen as Harper’s mother, Tipper, knows precisely what she’s doing every time she appears on screen to deliver a line or two, while Aubrey Plaza as Riley, an old friend of Harper’s, brings just enough chaos to Christmas to make an underwritten part sing. And Mary Holland (the film’s co-writer) plays The Strange Sister, Jane, the kind of role that could be annoying if not for Holland’s willingness to do weird shit for laughs.
And that’s before I even get to Kristen Stewart.
Stewart, whose entire screen persona is now basically trying to make everybody who watches her — up to and including straight cis men — 2 percent more queer, is an unlikely center for a fluffy film like this. She seems vaguely uncomfortable in the scenes where Abby is supposed to explain just why she’s always hated Christmas, as though she literally just learned what Christmas was when she arrived on set and is having to fake her way through it. When comedic shenanigans erupt around her, she wears an expression that might as well read as, “Welp. Guess we’re doing this.”
But that’s what makes her a weirdly genius choice for this movie. Stewart is one of my favorite performers living right now, and one of the things I most love about her is how often she seems like she wants to escape the movie she’s in and go anywhere else. Abby’s stated reasons for hating Christmas are like a perfunctory add-on to a movie that doesn’t really need to explain why someone who lost both her parents at the age of 19 (as Abby did) would hate Christmas.
But with Stewart, you really buy that Abby is only suffering through tree decorating and carol singing because she loves Harper just that much. Stewart and Davis’s chemistry is sometimes all this movie has going for it, but it’s palpable.
Also there’s this outfit Stewart wears at the Christmas Eve party in the movie, and oh my God. I need it for myself, now.
Bad: The class politics (or lack thereof)
Early in the movie, it’s established that Abby is a pet sitter and Harper is a [waves hands around vaguely]. (Later, there’s a brief mention of Harper having written “an article.”) “How do they afford this [huge, gorgeous, amazing] apartment?” my wife said. “Generational wealth” was my shrugging guess.
And guess what! It is generational wealth! Absolutely everybody in this movie is rich, they all live in enormous houses, and they can afford to have the most opulent Christmases imaginable. Harper appears to have been raised on, like, a massive estate, and every single one of Harper’s high school friends appears to be similarly wealthy. Even Abby, who is vaguely coded as less well-off than Harper, had two college professors for parents.
I’m not saying a “family gets together for Christmas” movie can’t be about rich people. In some ways, that might heighten the genre’s inherent escapism. But Happiest Season appears to have no idea that it is about people whose lives are atypical, which makes it seem like it takes place in a massive snowglobe. That choice makes for irritating class politics and bad storytelling, because there are really no dramatic stakes. If Harper’s parents reject her, that will be really awful. But Harper will also just go back to her apparently awesome life. It’ll be hard, but somehow, I think she’ll manage.
Weird: Are all mainstream movies about queer people just about how we should kinda be more like cishet people?
Early in the film, Abby reveals to John that she wants to propose to Harper on Christmas morning with a diamond engagement ring, after getting Harper’s dad’s blessing. John is slightly horrified at what he calls the “heteronormativity” of this plan, but Abby just explains that this type of proposal is what Harper would want, more or less. And once we meet Harper’s family, Abby’s plan makes a lot more sense. These are the sorts of people who rigidly adhere to tradition.
Even if this storytelling choice makes sense for these characters, the choice to have this movie play so thoroughly into the tropes of its genre — right down to the notion that the best possible ending for Harper and Abby is marriage — can make it feel like the greatest possible goal queer people can aim for is finding a way to embrace the mainstream and be just like cisgender, heterosexual people.
I don’t want to say this is an unworthy goal, either! I have my own struggles with just how completely to assimilate into cishet society as a mostly passing trans woman. Looking at how you can understand the problems with a system but still want to belong to that system, as Happiest Season almost does, can be really rewarding and thoughtful.
Instead of examining Harper’s and Abby’s tensions with mainstream culture, however, Happiest Season goes all-in on holiday movie tropes. It worked for me, and I do think it’s really sweet to have a movie with this type of story feature two women who love women at its center. Yet I found myself wondering what a queer Christmas movie that didn’t live by the expectations of a genre built atop the supremacy of the traditional family unit might look like. What would it mean to celebrate a Christmas free from the expectations of heteronormative society? How could celebrating with a chosen family beat celebrating with a biological one?
Happiest Season occasionally gestures toward these questions, but it never acknowledges them. It’s a cute movie with a lot of heart. It’s just that this heart was retrofitted from other movies’ tropes and is, as such, an awkward fit. For the next lesbian Christmas movie (please let there be a next one), it would be great to build a story about queer holiday celebrations from the ground up.
Happiest Season is available to stream on Hulu on Wednesday, November 25. It will also be available for purchase on digital services on Thursday, November 26.