Romantic comedies set around the holidays, Christmas in particular, are pretty much a staple in Hollywood. People falling in love, oddball family drama, clumsy misunderstandings, and happy resolutions just in time for Christmas morning are all expected in the most colorfully lit of rom-com subgenres. Also expected? A heterosexual couple at the heart of it all. (They’re also almost always white, but happily that’s been changing in recent years.) Happiest Season is a welcome reminder, and hopefully a sign of changing times, that not every love story is a straight one — and that everyone deserves to see themselves represented with sweetness, laughs, joy, and contrived, on the nose writing.
Abby’s (Kristen Stewart) not the biggest fan of Christmas since the loss of her parents, and it’s hard not to blame her. She’s happy and content in other ways, though, including in her relationship with her girlfriend Harper (Mackenzie Davis). When Harper invites her home to meet the family for the holiday, Abby takes it as a sign and plans to propose on Christmas morning. Unfortunately, a heteronormative-shaped wrench is thrown into the mix when Harper reveals just minutes away from her family’s home that she has yet to come out to them — and that she needs Abby to pretend they’re just two straight women who share an apartment. Let the holiday hijinks commence!
Happiest Season is a harmlessly good time filled with small laughs, big tears, and enough holiday spirit to satisfy any Christmas rom-com fan. Director/co-writer Clea DuVall packs the screen with friendly faces and affectionate intentions, and the combined effect works to numb the nagging feeling that while the surface dressing is fresh, the subgenre’s bones beneath are overly familiar and lightweight. To be clear, that’s not really a knock as fluff has its place — especially fluff that endears its characters to the point that viewers will find themselves wet-eyed during the third act.
It’s a big ask of Abby to hide her love, but the film thankfully avoids any truly messy or embarrassing story turns that could have arose as a result. Some minor jokes play on the idea as Abby flusters her way through a conversation pretending to be straight — a gag repeated to similarly smile-inducing effect by her best friend John (Dan Levy) later in the film — but it’s not overdone. The less humorous, but more interesting angle, sees Harper resetting in ways beyond her sexuality as she retreats into the comfort of her old high school friends (including an old boyfriend played by Jake McDorman) and becomes focused on pleasing her politician father (Victor Garber). There’s more than enough potential for conflict there, but much of it is brushed away in favor of focusing on Harper’s struggle to reveal to her loved ones that she’s gay.
It’s an undeniably valid and immensely personal struggle, and the script for Happiest Season, co-written by Mary Holland (who also plays Harper’s sister Jane) succeeds in balancing the terror of the unknown and the fear of not being accepted with an otherwise overwhelmingly light tone. We get physical comedy on a skating rink and during a fancy party, contrived and convenient misunderstandings, and a gag that lands Abby in a literal closet. Seriously, that last joke works incredibly hard to reach the point where Harper’s mom (Mary Steenburgen) can say “Why are you in the closet?” aloud. Fluff comedies aren’t known for subtlety, folks. (Not to mix holidays, but the film’s best gag is an Easter Egg of sorts that sees a Josh Hartnett poster on Harper’s bedroom wall — DuVall starred alongside that 90s dreamboat in 1998’s The Faculty.)
Stewart and Davis have an appealing chemistry, and as with last year’s brainlessly entertaining Charlie’s Angels reboot (shut up, it’s harmless fun) it’s once again a delight seeing Stewart show off her comedic chops. Her more emotional beats can’t be ignored, though, as she creates a character whose heartbreak becomes our own. Recognizable faces and established talents go a long way here as the supporting cast is every bit as welcome as the two leads. Garber and Steenburgen are warmer than their characters might initially suggest, Holland is goofily sincere as the oddball daughter everyone gave up on, and Alison Brie gets to play a hardass with her own troubles brewing.
Levy is probably just as big of a draw here as Schitts Creek continues to win hearts and fans over on Netflix, and while he’s barely straining to stand this performance apart from his role there he still manages some fun deliveries and stinging expressions. “There’s nothing more erotic than concealing your authentic selves,” is an example of him combining the two. Aubrey Plaza also shines in too small of a role — seriously, she threatens to steal away viewer sympathies from Davis more than once — that sees her giving a more restrained performance that still finds humor and humanity in limited screen time.
Happiest Season isn’t the first holiday rom-com with gay characters at the forefront, but it is the highest profile. The trend should continue to the point that this doesn’t need pointing out, and hopefully future films won’t feel reliant on the “coming out” angle as the couple’s sole source of conflict. It’s an undeniably important part of a gay person’s life, but it’s not their defining characteristic. As John tells Abby at one point, “Everybody’s story is different. There’s your version, and my version, and everything in between.” While it’s not necessarily handled here with a deft touch, it is delivered with an honest eye leading to an ending that will most certainly lead to warm tears. Is it progress? Yes. Is it ultimately forgettable on the comedy front? Sure. Is it worth 100 minutes of your time at the tail-end of this hellish year? Absolutely.