You read the synopsis of a film like Happiest Season and you think you know exactly where this is going to go: “A holiday romantic comedy that captures the range of emotions tied to wanting your family's acceptance, being true to yourself, and trying not to ruin Christmas.” It sounds like a heavy on the comedy Christmas romp that is also heavy on the cheese. Add in the presence of comedy superstar Dan Levy in a supporting role and you’d wouldn't be crazy to assume such things.
But one thing that is very clear as you watch the film is that it’s so INCREDIBLY not interested in reinforcing the norms of a comedy or a Christmas film. And given the subject matter we’re dealing with here, maybe repurposing some of the normal conventions of these films is not just novel but necessary to move both genres forward.
The film follows Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis), a lesbian couple living happily in Pittsburgh as the holiday season nears. Abby has lost both of her parents and Christmas is just another day to her. Harper has a large family with tons of Christmas traditions. You can see where this is going right? One night while taking in the lights of the neighborhood Harper invites Abby to come home with her for Christmas.
Immediately the next morning Harper seems to be backtracking but Abby is excited to meet her girlfriend’s parents and, as we learn while she is shopping her with best friend John (Dan Levy), plans to propose to Harper on Christmas morning with her father’s blessing. But the plan is almost immediately subverted as miles away from the home Harper drops the bomb that not only did she not tell her parents about dating Abby as she said she did, but that her conservative parents don’t even know that she’s gay. The story will be that Abby is her straight roommate with nowhere to go on account of being an orphan. Let the hijinks ensue!
Right off the bat we do not like Harper’s parents. Her father Ted (Victor Garber) is a local politician running for Mayor and is obsessed with image above all else. Her mother Tipper (Mary Steenburgen) reinforces this by being obsessed with Ted’s new Instagram feed and, like many a waspy conservative mother, being just WAY too much. We only hear about Abby’s orphan status about 8,000 times in the first five minutes of entering the house.
Harper has two sisters with considerable quirks of their own. Jane (a hilariously touching Mary Holland) is the epitome of the “trying-too-hard” personality. We get right away that her peppy and eager demeanor has to be masking some serious feelings of inadequacy and how that can grate on her parents still waiting for her to do as much as Harper and her other sister Sloane have. Speaking of Sloane (Allison Brie), she graduated the top of her class along with her husband but both gave up their lucrative careers to take care of their twins and sell custom-made gift baskets (yes, this is apparently a thing).
Harper and Sloane in particular have a very contentious relationship as both are always trying to one-up the other. Rounding out the cast of characters is Harper's ex-boyfriend Connor (Jake McDorman), Riley Johnson (Aubrey Plaza), the first girl that Harper ever dated and Harry Levin (Ana Gasteyer), a potential mega donor to Ted’s campaign.
Now like most of my reviews I won’t get too into the details of the specific happenings of the film as many of them you can probably guess. But what you can’t guess is the way all of these tropes are re-worked into the overall “coming out of the closet” theme at the heart of the film. While this movie wears the clothes of a screwball Christmas comedy it’s really a commentary on being who you are and not being willing to hide to please anyone. Every time it feels like we’re getting into madcap territory, director Clea Duvall (yes THAT Clea Duvall) reminds us of what is really at stake in this ill-fated trip home for the holidays.
A lot of that credit has to go to the two leads. Kristen Stewart has made some bold choices in the last couple of years that is succeeding in shedding the tween image that rocketed her to stardom in the Twilight franchise. While I wouldn’t put her as a force actor she has become very good at using that naturally stoic face to bring some characters to life that specialize in having to hide a part of themselves. Abby is tragic not because of what is happening to her in this house but because she truly is okay with who she is and Harper really simply is not.
Speaking of which, Mackenzie Davis has been one of my favorite actors since I first saw her in the San Junipero episode of Black Mirror. Since then she’s built an incredibly eclectic resume that includes prestige dramas and TV work and even a Terminator leading role. What she pulls off in this film truly is tricky. We have to sympathize and be furious with Harper at almost every second of screen time she gets simultaneously. The latter is much easier as many of the jaw-drop moments come from Harper’s regressive and cautious behavior while in her hometown. This causes Abby to seek refuge in Riley’s company which sets off the action of our third act.
But Duvall is clever never to let us rest in the ridiculous moments. The cataclysmic “reveal” scene is followed by genuine heartbreak and a monologue delivered by Levy that is sure to be a mainstay for many moving forward in life. It’s that delicate balance that is the true accomplishment of the film. It manages to be just the right amount of madcap and just the right amount of sentimental without suffering the pitfalls of completely embracing either.
And while the ultimate conclusion of the film feels predictably tidy, the journey to it is anything but. The scenes where the film wrestles with acceptance feel very genuine and given that Duvall has said this is essentially her story on film, you can really see the care that went into them. The movie does slow quite a bit in the middle and one or two of the standard “situations" feel a little too paint-by-numbers but they never outshine the true story lit throughout. And that story is well worth telling in today’s world.