The holiday family romcom tends to go a certain way. The loving parents are having some kind of troubles (medical? financial? marital?) that they haven't fully shared. The kids come home for the holidays, and they have their own things going on: they're not ready to reveal a breakup, or they're not happy about running into an ex, or they're looking to introduce a new partner for the first time.
Happiest Season on Hulu is a variation on this oft-used theme, not that there's anything wrong with that. Harper (Mackenzie Davis) is bringing her girlfriend Abby (Kristen Stewart) home to meet the family: father (Victor Garber), mother (Mary Steenburgen), nasty striver sister (Alison Brie), and needy middle sister (Mary Holland). The family will have to find some way to welcome Abby and ring in the holidays, right? And the sisters will all have to figure out a way to love each other? And we'll learn that all these people have their own sadnesses? Sure. The complication is this: Not only has Harper's family not met Abby, but they don't know that Harper is gay, so when she brings Abby home, it's on the pretext that Abby is just her roommate and pal.
Now, the film goes to some lengths to try to create circumstances under which this could happen (because ... why would you bring your girlfriend home if you weren't out, and why would she go?), and they're not terribly convincing, but that's okay. Everybody is different, after all, and a little bit of going with the flow is very much expected in holiday movies and romcoms and especially in holiday romcoms. Once Abby gets there and understands the situation, she starts explaining it on the phone to her friend John (played by Schitt's Creek's Dan Levy), who coaches her about how to handle it, much like Lil Rel coached Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out. There are some comedic set pieces, there's some warm family business, and there's Aubrey Plaza playing Harper's ex, Riley, who plays a significant role in revealing how Harper got into this situation in the first place.
The biggest challenge is that the character of Harper is ... opaque, for lack of a better word. Her motives are a little hard to understand some of the time. That's emphatically not because she's not out to her parents — the film, directed by Clea Duvall, is sensitive about explaining explicitly that people not being out to their families doesn't reflect poorly on them, and it doesn't mean they don't love their partners. But the particular ways Harper treats Abby, and the situations she puts Abby in, strain the necessary part of this story in which you root for this couple. Nobody wants to follow a romance that you sense will end with a couple together while increasingly thinking that ... maybe they should break up? I never reached that point with Happiest Season, but I wobbled a few times.
And it wasn't because the characters were complex and flawed (though they are). It was because Harper isn't nearly as well-rounded as Abby as a character. An early scene with the two sitting on a roof is asked to do too much work establishing Harper as a loving partner and explaining why they're happy together. By the time Abby considers getting out of the family house (again, like in Get Out), I wasn't fully invested in whether she came back. In fairness, those delicate balances are really hard, and I think ultimately, the film gets away with the incomplete development of Harper because of the terrific cast. That means the leads, but also MVP drop-ins that I don't want to spoil, and the presence of people like Mary Holland, who is one of the most indispensable comic actresses we have. Her every line reading kills, and she manages to make her character deeply funny but never pitiful; she might be the most decent person in the whole family.
It's particularly satisfying to see Kristen Stewart getting, and enjoying, this kind of work. She's done plenty of good things that have established her acting chops, but this is a laid-back, charming, funny performance that makes Abby the clear hero of the movie, and the one with the most successfully excavated feelings. In an interesting bend to the formula, it's Abby who winds up befriending Riley, and seeing the two women — Harper's ex-partner and current partner — talk about what it's like to be with her turns out to be perhaps more fun than seeing Abby and Harper together.
This kind of dissection might make it sound like I didn't enjoy the film, and I emphatically did. It's funny, it's charming, it's warm, and it's got a bunch of really good performances. It's so good to see queer creators and characters given their own space in this kind of popular genre entertainment. Stewart is just terrific in it, and I don't think the issue with Harper is Davis, considering how many things she's also been terrific in. I think getting absolutely everything in balance with this kind of story is almost impossible, and to their credit, they come pretty close.