Happiest Season Is a Welcome Addition to the Gay Rom-Com Canon

content-header__row content-header__hed” data-testid=”ContentHeaderHed”>Happiest Season Is a Welcome Addition to the Gay Rom-Com CanonClea DuVall’s charming Christmas movie, starring Kristen Stewart and McKenzie Davis, is a most pleasant holiday surprise.

November 19, 2020

Photo by Lacey Terrell/TriStar Pictures

When the trailer for the new Christmas romcom Happiest Season dropped, so, too, did my heart. What I had been avidly curious about—a movie about a not-yet-out lesbian bringing her girlfriend home for the holidays, directed by cult queer icon Clea DuVall!—suddenly seemed so leaden, so cheap, so unfunny. It’s a really bad trailer—not just because it unappealingly advertises a movie, but because the actual movie (Hulu, November 25) it’s advertising is a real delight, a vibrant and winsome little picture that actually does live up to all of its initial promise. Don’t let the terrible teaser scare you off.

That first glimpse of Happiest Season made the movie look utterly formulaic, styled after the limp but exceedingly popular holiday junk food cranked out in increasing volume by Hallmark, Lifetime, and Netflix every year. While DuVall’s film is fashioned, in some senses, after those movies, it also elevates the blueprint: There is an elegance to Happiest Season not seen in myriad movies about Christmas cranks or busybodies learning to love during tinsel time. 

We follow Abby (Kristen Stewart) as she journeys to the childhood home of her live-in girlfriend Harper (McKenzie Davis), a moneyed place in the suburbs presided over by mom Tipper (Mary Steenburgen) and dad Ted (Victor Garber). He’s a wealthy mayoral candidate, she a perfectionist hostess determined to help him get into office. Their home is the stuff of catalog envy: sprawling, cozily lived-in but still neat, done up in warm creams and comfy furniture. (With its stately brick structure, it is perhaps a cousin of the long lusted-after house from Home Alone.) The nearby town center is a chic but understated hamlet, with quaint bars and bespoke shops and a one-screen movie theater with a tasteful neon marquee. 

These trappings are obvious, materialist, certainly not tethered to the economic realities of most people’s everyday lives. But therein lies the fantasy of film—long granted to thousands of fictional straight couples, here being generously offered up to a couple of gays. (Well-heeled and white ones, yes, but gays nonetheless.) Happiest Season is not so much an aspirant to the queer canon as it is to the conventional holiday comedy genre, asserting a gay narrative into a rigorously straight tradition. Are the politics of its wealth-wanking ultimately all that healthy for our moral understanding of how money works in the world? No, probably not. But as an instance of a practiced form, Happiest Season achieves an inviting luster, one whose alienating quality only makes it all the more enticing. 

Most crucially, the story unfolding in these refined spaces is a witty and closely observed one, clever about its tropes and full of lively, odd details. DuVall wrote the screenplay with comedian Mary Holland, an L.A.-improv and podcast favorite who also plays a supporting role in the film—and almost walks off with the whole thing. Holland, as overlooked middle sister Jane (the prim eldest sister, Sloane, is played by Alison Brie), adds a weird, almost dangerous energy to her scenes, an offbeat flair also felt elsewhere in the film, balancing out all of Happiest Season’s studied homage to the mainstream. There are enough surprising one-liners and asides to make this romantic comedy actually funny, rather than something to mildly chuckle at on the way to the kissing. 

The whole cast vibes on that merry wavelength. Dan Levy gamely plays the snarky gay bestie role—the tweak here being that he’s the best friend of another gay person. Steenburgen shrewdly plays an outwardly flawless suburban doyenne who’s actually not a very nice person, keeping Tipper’s monstrousness in the realm of believability rather than making her an arch cartoon. Aubrey Plaza has a few tart and poignant scenes as a woman from Harper’s past. And a host of beloved comedy-scene types like Lauren Lapkus, Michelle Buteau, Sarayu Blu, DuVall’s Veep costar Timothy Simons, and Ana Gasteyer all make welcome, if brief, appearances.

If the film’s stars, Stewart and Davis, don’t exactly get to be the funny ones, they do at least give the movie the right emotional tenor, natural and nuanced and thoughtful. As Abby is forced to participate in the charade that she’s simply Harper’s orphaned roommate needing a place to spend Christmas, a complicated tension arises. Abby is, of course, understanding of Harper’s concern about how her conservative parents will react. But she’s also frustrated and frankly turned-off by someone who so easily slips into a lie at the expense of the person she loves. DuVall employs a deft, subtle hand to tease out these conundrums, building to an everyone-blurts-out-the-truth climax that has earned its teary speechifying. For a lush Christmas movie full of comedians, Happiest Season has an admirable sense of restraint and rhythm.

I’m sure there will be plenty of people who see the movie and, fairly or not, want to audit its particular queerness, its messaging about coming-out and living one’s truth, especially in the face of a potentially less-than-supportive family. From my admittedly blinkered vantage point, though, Happiest Season near entirely succeeds in its mission of applying the glossy fascinations of Hollywood to a specifically tailored gay story—one that is serious but not tragic, funny but not snide. Happiest Season is not going to single-handedly cure any ills of representation, but it ought to fit snugly alongside so many other titles in a cherished genre. That may be gift enough.

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