Happiest Season was described by one of its lead actors, Kristen Stewart, simply as “a gay Christmas film.” She’s not wrong. The mainstream film centers around a lesbian couple and its narrative features a coming out story. However, after watching this new festive rom-com for myself, Stewart’s short, sharp description doesn’t sit well with me, nor does it do the film justice.
Happiest Season, directed by Clea DuVall, follows Abby (Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis) as they spend their first Christmas together with Harper’s family. The only problem is that Harper’s conservative family do not know she’s gay and she doesn’t break this news to Abby until the car journey there, leaving the pair with no option other than to pretend Abby is her orphaned friend who has no one else to spend the holidays with. What could possibly go wrong?
DuVall walks a tightrope of rom-com and raw emotion throughout this film, and she does it brilliantly. You go from laugh-out-loud moments, where Abby’s BFF John (Daniel Levy) proclaims “have they ever seen a lesbian before!?” when Abby reveals that she is also pretending to be straight, to agonising empathy when he retorts in “there’s nothing more erotic than hiding your true authentic selves”—the sad reality for Harper.
As a spectator, you flip-flop with empathy from character to character throughout the film as their life experiences and choices are revealed. Sure, it’s easy to brand Harper as a villain for putting Abby back in the closet, both metaphorically and physically. Or it’s ostensibly easy to hate Harper’s parents, who suggest that their neighbours must be proud of their gay daughter’s promotion at work considering her “lifestyle choices.” But DuVall tackles the film with more nuance than that.
Just when, as a spectator, you’re comfortable with pinning the blame on someone in this shitshow of a family, the narrative is disrupted and you sympathise with them, just a little. For example, there’s Sloane (Alison Brie), Harper’s competitive older sister—she’s rude, unlikeable, and worst of all she shares the news that Harper is a lesbian with their parents. But to counterbalance this, DuVall gives Sloane a whole heap of problems too: a mum who’s disappointed in her choice of job, a cheating husband and a broken family of her own. In an interview with Insider, DuVall explains that she didn’t want to vilify anyone with this story: “Coming out is not an easy thing to do no matter who you are, no matter where you come from… Every queer person had gone through it and knows that feeling of not being out. Wherever you are in that process be nice to yourself.”
Daniel Levy’s character, John, puts this message across perfectly in the scene that follows the crazy Christmas party coming out fiasco. He comforts a distraught and broken Abby as he recounts his own character’s coming out story, which didn’t have a happy, fairytale ending, encouraging Abby to see how the situation might be from another perspective: Harper’s perspective.
Outside of this emotional roller-coaster, DuVall genuinely succeeds in creating an excellent Christmas film. Why no major studio has realised until now that camp and Christmas go hand-in-hand is a travesty. It’s about time we waved goodbye to the traditional clear family that dominates Christmas films—something Love Actually almost managed—and showed something realistic, even if we do know from its genre it’s destined to have a cheesy, happy ending.
With its references to social media, Happiest Season subtly reminds spectators that photos are simply an image we want to portray—something Harper’s mum agonises over—and it’s not until the final scene when the family successfully achieve a natural photo of their authentic selves, pajamas and all. I don’t know about you, but I feel better about wearing mine all day now.
Finally, a review of Happiest Season wouldn’t be complete without a tribute to Harper’s sister Jane (Mary Holland), who is simultaneously the funniest character and the butt of the jokes throughout the film. DuVall’s subliminal message shines through her: although a person might not seem important, if they are an ally, they are without a doubt, incredibly important. During the Christmas party family feud, Jane stands up for her two sisters, creating one of the most wholesome scenes in the entire film—which is exactly why this film is so, so much more than “a gay Christmas film”.
Happiest Season is available to stream now.
Words by Rebecca McAree
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