‘Happiest Season’ is a serious but sweet Christmas romance

Although Netflix and the Hallmark Channel may have separate monopolies on the GBCM (Good/Bad Christmas Movie), it goes without saying that camp fests like the Christmas Prince trilogy and the Princess Switch movies are not every viewer’s cup of tea. However, Hulu’s newest release, Happiest Season, is more in line with the tastes of movie viewers who carve out time every December for a Love, Actually rewatch. 

Happiest Season follows Abby (Kristen Stewart) who plans to propose to her girlfriend Harper (Mackenzie Davis, B.A. ‘10) while spending the holidays with Harper’s family. However, shortly before they arrive, Harper reveals that she has not come out to her family and as such both women have to pretend to just be good friends for the entire trip. 

This leads to a series of wacky, classic rom-com misadventures as Abby tries to get to know and impress Harper’s parents, all while grappling with the difficulty of being forced to hide her relationship and watching the love of her life pretend to be a completely different person. The emotional gravity of the situation is juxtaposed with the humour and lightheartedness of a holiday comedy, which director Clea DuVall balances well.

Stewart is the centre of the movie: Her charisma and comedic timing are a big part of what makes it so enjoyable. Stewart captures the confident conviction of Abby’s love for Harper just as well as Abby’s introspective, awkward side that emerges in hiding her sexuality and relationship. The supporting cast shines throughout the film, with particular standouts Dan Levy as John, Abby’s gay best friend (GBF)—although the trope is somewhat subverted by the fact that Abby herself is, by definition, his gay best friend as well—and Harper’s two eccentric and intense older sisters, Mary Holland as Jane and Alison Brie as Sloan, respectively. 

The biggest highlight from the supporting cast, however, is Riley (Aubrey Plaza), Harper’s ex-girlfriend from high school. As the only other lesbian in the town, the two form a friendship after continuing to run in to each other during the vacation. The chemistry between the actors is phenomenal and, by the end of the film, it’s clear that Abby seems better suited to a relationship with Riley, rather than Harper. 

Davis’ performance makes it easy to empathize with her character, but while Harper’s predicament is an understandable reality for many lesbians, the damage that her actions inflict on Abby make it hard to root for the two to end up together. Although the film doesn’t explicitly villainize Harper, it does make the viewer more sympathetic towards Abby. Abby is often played as the straight man to some of the more exaggerated characters in the film, making her character seem more grounded and relatable, and thus easier to root for.

Happiest Season arrives on a streaming service, making it feel adjacent to a made-for-TV Hallmark or Lifetime film, as well as ideal for the current pandemic. Perhaps more imporantly, it is also the first major holiday movie to feature a lesbian couple. Duvall, who also co-wrote the film, modeled Abby after herself and her own story of coming out to her mother on Christmas. 

While at times the film’s attempts to recast the typically heteronormative genre of holiday romance may come off as disjointed, Happiest Season ultimately strikes a balance between the serious topics of sexuality and the warmth of Christmas magic. Despite the uncertainty and complications that have changed the way that holidays are celebrated this winter, movies like Happiest Season help to bring back a sense of normalcy to this holiday season. 

Most film consumers would agree that Christmas movies aren’t aiming to reach the highest standard of art. Regardless, they do reach an emotional pathos with viewers to provide hope and light for the new year—something that most, if not all, of us undoubtedly need right now. Happiest Season, despite being the first queer film of its kind, isn’t pretending to be anything else—it reminds us what we need in a time like this: Love, leisure, and lesbians.

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