As its title suggests, “Happiest Season,” the second film from Clea Duvall, opens on a picturesque Christmas scene. Abby (Kristen Stewart) and her girlfriend, Harper (Mackenzie Davis) are on a neighborhood Christmas decorations tour, and Harper is trying to cajole Abby into the holiday spirit. After a wayward excursion onto a rooftop, the couple’s night ends in giggles and kissing. Caught in the moment, Harper asks Abby to spend the holidays with her and her family.
“If that doesn’t convince you to love Christmas,” Harper says, “I’ll never bring it up again.”
The film will no doubt have its detractors – the bulk of them in the queer community itself. With so few mainstream gay and lesbian offerings each year, these films are held to exacting standards by the very audiences they aim to please. They’re found either too middling or too bold, too mainstream or too outre – too “Love Simon” or too “Duck Butter.” In the case of “Happiest Season,” that wariness has begun well before the film’s Nov. 25 premiere, because “Happiest Season” marks another coming out story on screen. Some think this premise too well trod in queer cinema, where same-sex romance often culminates in rejection, tragedy, and/or death.
To those people, a challenge: If this movie doesn’t convince you to love one coming out story, I’ll never bring it up again.
Harper tries to renege on her ecstatic invitation, and, as she and Abby drive to her parent’s house, we learn why: Harper still hasn’t come out to her mother (Mary Steenburgen) and father (Victor Garber). The film follows Abby, who, now unwittingly at the center of a heterosexual charade, must try not to crumble under the pressure of the ruse.
And that pressure certainly builds. Not only is Abby pretending to be straight herself, but she must also watch Harper’s parents giddily try to set Harper up with her high school boyfriend and warmly embrace their other daughter’s husband like a son. But it’s also immediately clear why Harper is so afraid to come out. This is the sort of world where lesbianism is a “lifestyle choice” and “our foundation is built on family, tradition, and faith.”
That nuance, as well as a truly outstanding cast, save this occasionally anemic script by Duvall and Mary Holland. Unlike “Lez Bomb,” Jenna Laurenzo’s 2018 comedy with a similar premise, “Happiest Season” resists didacticism. Abby is neither a saint, endlessly accepting Harper’s wrongheaded acts of evasion, nor a monster, set on berating her girlfriend out of the closet. Stewart acts with characteristic aplomb, exuding a potent vulnerability only compounded by her costar’s towering height. (Davis makes her look teeny tiny. It is delightful.) Only an equally versatile performer could act alongside such generosity without seeming like a complete ogre. And Davis, as Harper, does. Stewart has incredible chemistry with everyone in this film, especially Davis. But when push comes to shove, it is Davis who gets the most heart-wrenching lines – and she delivers the hell out of them.
Stewart and Davis are bolstered by veterans Garber and Steenburgen, who likewise manage the Herculean task of turning Hollywood Republican parents into people. Alison Brie and Mary Holland also shine as Harper’s sisters: an over-competitive perfectionist and a marginalized weirdo, respectively. Daniel Levy brings the film’s brightest moments and funniest lines to his every scene as Abby’s best friend, John.
The film is not flawless: Its bursts of physical comedy are strange at best, and its messy climax resolves too easily. But its wholesome cheer and winning performances (and again, Davis and Stewart’s adorable height difference) are bound to leave you feeling cozy. Self-proclaimed Grinches might even feel their hearts grow back to normal size. [B]
“The Happiest Season” debuts on Hulu on November 25.