I’m not a hard critic to please. While I love an original story that breaks free from tradition and repetition, a well-told story with well-executed jokes can win me over. And if you can do that while adding a new twist or take that hasn’t been provided before? Well, you have me eating out of the palm of your hand. The romantic comedy, often a Hallmarkian paradise of white people in sweaters drinking tea (not that any of that is a bad thing), has been ripe for reinvention in recent years – Crazy Rich Asians in 2018 proved just that, delivering a classic story through great jokes and a fresh, inclusive angle. This is exactly why I’ve been excited for months about Happiest Season, Clea DuVall’s queer take on the classic rom-com format. And thanks to stellar writing, perfectly executed comedy, and one of the best ensembles of the year, I can confirm that Happiest Season isn’t just one of the year’s best films – it’s one of the best romantic comedies and Christmas films of the modern era.
Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis) have a perfect life in Pittsburgh. With the holidays approaching, and Abby accepting Harper’s impulsive invitation home for Christmas, Abby decides it’s the perfect time to ask for Harper’s hand in marriage. However, halfway to her family home, Harper drops a bombshell: her parents, successful politician Ted (Victor Garber) and traditional matriarch Tipper (Mary Steenbergen), don’t know that she’s gay. And what’s more, Ted is running for mayor, and can’t afford any scandals that may derail his campaign. And so not only must Harper remain in the closet through the holidays – Abby must assume the role of Harper’s depressed orphan roommate to avoid rousing suspicions. As more family members roll in, like competitive older sister Sloane (Alison Brie) and kooky middle child Jane (Mary Holland), and exes begin showing up in their social circle, Abby must find a way to keep the ruse alive to please the woman she loves.
There’s a reason Hallmark movies are such massive hits every year, and contrary to popular belief, it has nothing to do with a nostalgia for a “more simpler time.” Hallmark movies are successful because they offer up classic stories we’ve heard before in convenient, comforting ways. That’s precisely what Happiest Season is so good at – proving that these types of stories are, in theory, no more inferior than any other type of artistic accomplishment. The only difference here is the presence of a competent writer and a more adept cast. And as it turns out, that difference is vital. DuVall draws from the traditions of both the holiday comedy (Christmas in Connecticut, Christmas Vacation, etc.) and the screwball rom-com (The Philadelphia Story, You’ve Got Mail, etc.), and as it turns out, I am here for ALL of it. This is about a lovely couple navigating the complicated minefield that is love, and encountering dramatic miscommunications, emotional breakdowns, and overwhelming affection as they try to make their relationship work.
The only thing that separates it from the pack – and to great effect – is the modern twist that these two are gay, and the minefield they’re navigating is the personal hell of coming out to your loved ones. Combining the two is a risky gambit – coming out is too serious to be treated nonchalantly, while most films that tackle the subject usually resort to condescending Sadness Porn. And yet the marriage here works, thanks to DuVall’s trademark wit. She manages to elevate this material not only into a fully functional comedy, but into a fully-fledged modern day Christmas classic. The impeccable soundtrack is a veritable who’s who of modern Christmas anthems (including a terrific new hit by Tegan and Sara called “Make You Mine This Season,” and the film is wrapped in a warm Christmas-y feel of nostalgia and togetherness. From the throwback opening of Christmas cards explaining our protagonists’ backstory to a near-perfect “One Year Later” epilogue, Happiest Season knows the Christmas itch we desperately need scratched and, as far as I’m concerned, delivers up the best Christmas movie since Elf (albeit a few cult/nostalgic favorites in the meantime).
Part of the reason the film’s narrative manages to navigate that tricky terrain of comedy-drama is the fact that DuVall and her talented cast of actors allow the characters to be complicated and, on occasion, unlikeable without ever demonizing them. It would be so easy to portray Ted and Tipper as the stereotypical arch-conservative parents you find in most gay romances. But Ted and Tipper have little to no stake in the queer world – indeed, they are relatively apolitical, and may resemble the Gore family more than the traditional conservative (I doubt it’s a coincidence Steenbergen’s matriarch is named “Tipper”). No, Ted and Tipper’s ultimate sin has nothing to do with bigotry – it is something far deeper, honest, and forgivable. Ted and Tipper are Type-A parents who demand perfection from their children at all costs, by society’s standards. Make no mistake: it is horrifically bad parenting. But not only is it a fresher take than the whole “No daughter of mine’s gonna be a gay” – it allows for more complex dynamics between the children. Sloane and Harper’s combative relationship is humorous enough on the surface, but the film also delves into the trauma that fuels that competition (the fear that losing will destroy their parents’ love). Meanwhile, ADHD-addled Mary is so desperate for attention that she basically becomes a servant for her parents in their later years. It’s a smarter arc than outright homophobia, and improves the film tremendously.
Similarly, the family dynamics also make Harper a more complex character than, say, Teri Polo’s counterpart in Meet the Parents. Much has been written already about Harper’s decision-making in the film, yet I’ve seen few hot takes that truly capture the beauty of what Davis and DuVall have accomplished here. Harper is a woman whose past insecurities and traumas caused her to make some unhealthy and toxic decisions, and yet, like most of us, she grew out of them, and started to come to terms with them thanks to her love for Abby – not to mention Abby’s love for her. Happiest Season explores, in ways both comic and tragic (you know, the way films used to be before a general dilution for the masses), what happens when someone who had started to atone for their past is suddenly thrust back into that toxic situation, and how they will adapt.
It’s a difficult field Harper navigates – one filled with self-built barriers, massive fears, and a toxic flight-or-flight response in the third act that hurts everyone onscreen and off. And yet, she’s still a likable and redeemable character, thanks to her ability to work through the past and better herself for the future – and, again, because of the redeeming power of love. This is a film that understands its characters’ flaws, from the parents to its protagonists, and yet doesn’t punish them or villainize them. People f*ck up and make bad decisions, and yet they are still capable of growth, and to accept the forgiveness we offer them. It’s their choice whether they earn it or not, and when they do, it’s a beautiful thing. And it is that beauty that DuVall strives to bring into this world through this film.
I’ve written a lot about the structure of this film already, and it is entirely possible that I’ve bored you into submission because of it. So allow me to bring you back into the fold: this is a funny, funny, movie, filled with love and pleasure. DuVall’s direction is so precise, whether capturing the physical comedy, the witty dialogue, or the romance between Abby and Harper. In a lot of ways, it borrows from the classic comedies of yore, whether the broader laughs of 70s juvenalia or the intellectual precision of a 1940s-era Hawks or Sturges rom-com. There are nods to classic setups, like competitive figure skating and the classic “hiding behind doors” trope. There are clever background gags, like a running joke where Abby’s best friend John (Dan Levy) subtly kills the fish he’s supposed to be feeding while she’s out of town. And there are weird asides that just seem specific to DuVall’s beautifully twisted brain, like two creepy twins whose Christmas wish are The Complete Works of Sylvia Plath, or an early, brilliant throwaway joke involving a reindeer costume. DuVall carefully cultivates each joke, nursing it and executing it with the precision of a David Fincher or Stanley Kubrick (but, ya know, without the intensity), and the film works all the better because of it.
But the real reason this film works is because, hands down, this is the year’s best ensemble. Each performer, from top to bottom, brings their A-game to elevate this film – essentially striving (and succeeding) to resemble Meg Ryan more than Candace Cameron Bure (no offense to the Full House star). Stewart and Davis are fantastic leads, mostly because they have believable, beautiful chemistry together, although they work just as well apart as they do together. Stewart here is a real revelation – she’s spent the last few years trying to rid herself of the shadow of Twilight through thrillers and dramas, but here she manages to prove herself a veritable comedic actress as well. Not only does she radiate charisma, but she elevates her character’s comedic bits at every turn – a recurring bit about her inability to lie and the bad attempts that follow would fall flat in a lesser performer’s hands. Meanwhile, Davis plays her role to perfection, capturing the bottled up insecurities and secrets that Harper carries with her, and she portrays Harper’s various breakdowns (whether emotional, mental, or romantic) with aplomb.
But the film’s success branches far beyond its romantic leads. In fact, I’d wager this film has not one, not two, but three scene-stealers who deserve acclaim and attention for their work. The first is Dan Levy as Abby’s gay best friend (because even in the queer rom-com, of course there’s a gay best friend). While Levy’s John is only slightly more in control than his iconic David Rose, Levy is so good here you’ll easily ignore moments where the two sort of merge. And that’s not to mention a third-act monologue that is so beautiful and poignant, it elevates the film a whole letter grade. The second performer I want to praise is Aubrey Plaza as Harper’s high school girlfriend, who comes onto the screen in an iconic jumpsuit and fueled with BDE. It’s almost not fair – Plaza oozes talent, charm, and charisma from the jump, so much so that she not only overwhelmed her fellow stars, but has fueled “shippers” to override the film’s established canon to pair Plaza’s Riley with Stewart’s Abby (I don’t support it, but, I mean…I see it). And then there’s Holland as forgotten middle child Jane. Holland, the script’s co-writer, is Happiest Season’s secret weapon. Her ability to deliver a joke, steal background interactions, and ultimately let havoc loose upon the production is a wonder to behold. Holland runs away with this movie, and if she doesn’t earn a Rupert Everett/Awkwafina-esque moment because of it, I’m going to lose my damn mind.
And even if a performer doesn’t outright steal the movie, it doesn’t mean they aren’t exceptional in the part they play. After all, Brie knows exactly how to play eldest daughter Sloane, a high-strung Goop mom who runs a crystal gift basket company. Ditto for Steenbergen, who has played the mom before (Elf, Step Brothers, The Proposal, The Help, Four Christmases…I could go on), but rarely with as much icy brilliance as she provides Tipper. Garber lacks the comedic moments his costars are provided, but a few emotional third act moments demonstrate why an actor of his caliber is necessary. I was particularly fond of the casting of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend regular Burl “Don’t Be A Lawyer” Moseley as Brie’s “perfect” husband, and greatly enjoyed a brief cameo by Ana Gasteyer as a political bigwig, even though she lacks a proper moment to vamp. Oh, and for fans of modern TV comedy, DuVall’s Veep costar Timothy Simons and Holland’s former writing partner Laura Lapkus show up briefly as two super-serious mall security guards – the bit’s as good as it sounds.
Happiest Season is a breath of fresh air at the tail end of the unbearableness of 2020. And just as this holiday season is currently being viewed as the best hope for escape from the dumpster fire around us, so too is Happiest Season a perfect capstone to the year’s bizarre, but brilliant oeuvre of cinema. Listen, I can use a bunch of buzzwords about this film to make myself pretentious – I can talk about how “important it is,” and “beautiful,” and what not. After all, it’s all of those things regardless. But I think there is a better indicator of the film’s success. I watched this film late at night after a stressful work week, before the busy Thanksgiving hubbub. I poured myself a cup of tea, curled up under a blanket, and sat studiously watching the romance and the humor pan out. And the smile on my face did not dissipate for a single second. This is a fun, warming movie that captures the season, the genre, and the art of filmmaking well. And I hope you get as much joy out of it as I did.
Happiest Season is now streaming on Hulu