While looking for something to do on Thanksgiving, we stumbled into one of the most surprising movies we’ve seen this year — “Happiest Season,” directed by Clea DuVall and streaming on Hulu. We generally don’t find ourselves compelled to watch the Christmas-themed romantic comedies that come out in droves every November, especially when they have the most boring title ever attached to a film.
But “Happiest Season” somehow tricked us into getting invested in its characters and world.
The movie follows lesbian couple Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis) as they travel to spend Christmas with Harper’s family. But on the way there, Harper reveals that she has never come out to her parents, who think Abby is their daughter’s straight, platonic roommate. Romcom antics ensue as the couple attempts to hide the true nature of their relationship.
The movie started out cringey enough, but that’s what we expected — it’s a straight-to-streaming Christmas romcom, after all. But then we found ourselves drawn into the plot, fascinated by the world the film had constructed.
Early on, viewers find out that Abby plans not only to ask Harper to marry her on Christmas Day, but also wants to ask Harper’s father, Ted (Victor Harber), for his approval. This is all pretty standard for a holiday romcom, but for an ostensibly queer movie, it’s remarkably heteronormative and patriarchal. As we formed this thought, though, Dan Levy (of “Schitt’s Creek”) showed up as Abby’s gay best friend, John, and voiced it within the context of the movie. So, if nothing else, the filmmakers were aware of the weird plot they were constructing.
What was stranger than the film’s hybridization of 1950s and 2020s values, however, was the fact that we quickly started to care about Abby and Harper’s relationship, especially from Abby’s point of view. As the comedy unfolds around the couple trying to hide their relationship, the movie almost goes through mitosis and becomes two different movies. Harper’s side of the plot feels like lighthearted farce, but Abby — who gets the short end of the stick in the comedic misunderstandings — ends up in a much more serious film. We’re spoiling the movie starting here, so if you care about that sort of thing, go away now and come back.
One subplot revolves around Harper’s parents trying to set her up with her ex-boyfriend, Connor (Jake McDorman), who she ends up spending a lot of time with while neglecting Abby. This would be a typical romcom mix-up, but it occurs while the events of the movie also turn Harper’s family against Abby, putting her in a deeply bad place emotionally. And Stewart, not knowing what kind of movie she’s in, imbues Abby with a palpable level of trauma.
Around the same time, Abby befriends Riley (Aubrey Plaza), Harper’s ex-girlfriend who Harper treated poorly as well. And while we were invested in Abby’s relationship with Harper because of Stewart’s chemistry with Davis, Stewart has as much or more chemistry with Plaza. (Among viewers of “Happiest Season,” a Team Harper/Team Riley dichotomy has emerged, echoing Stewart’s “Twilight” series romantic options.)
The movie treats the idea of Harper coming out with the importance it deserves, but the movie is a comedy, and while Harper’s parents are oblivious to her sexual orientation, they’re not monsters. There’s never a sense that they’ll react negatively if they know their daughter is a lesbian. As a result, her continued reluctance to reveal it — at Abby’s expense — makes the ending, which you will have predicted if you’ve ever watched a romantic comedy before, fall flat. Still, we don’t think we’ve been this anxious during the climax of a movie this year.
Most of the comedic elements are exactly what you’d expect for a straight-to-streaming romcom. A lot of it fails to draw laughs, but Mary Steenburgen and Alison Brie, as Harper’s mother and sister respectively, both have a handful of genuinely funny bits. Levy is easily the funniest actor in the movie, but he’s not in it much.
“Happiest Season” is a very unusual mixture of holiday comedy and LGBTQ film, and we’re kinda reluctant to say that it’s “good.” But is uncannily compelling, and we have to recommend it anyway.