After years of Christmas romances from Hallmark, Lifetime and increasingly, Netflix, this year Hulu have stepped into the market with a twist on the usual format. Actress and director Clea DuVall follows up her 2016 feature debut, The Intervention, with Happiest Season – a lesbian Christmas rom-com. Unlike most rom-coms, it’s not about two people overcoming obstacles and gradually falling in love – Harper (Mackenzie Davis) and Abby (Kristen Stewart) are an established couple from the start and have been together for a year. The obstacle comes when Harper wants to take Abby home to meet her family at Christmas time and it turns out, Harper has not come out to her family yet.
This is, unfortunately, the central flaw in Happiest Season and one that makes it difficult to see the positives in the film as a whole. Harper is set up as an unlikable character from the start and only gets worse, making it difficult for us to root for her and Abby. Harper only reveals to Abby on the drive to her parents’ house that she isn’t out and she constructs a ruse that exploits the fact that Abby is an orphan as a ‘hilarious’ cover story, in order to explain why Abby is tagging along for the holidays. Harper then basically abandons Abby once they get there, spending time with her family and friends and virtually ignoring her girlfriend.
In true Christmas movie tradition, Harper’s family home is huge and looks like something from a Christmas card. The opening titles are also in the form of painted Christmas card style scenes featuring Harper and Abby. Harper’s father (played by Victor Garber) is running for Mayor and this is supposed to provide the explanation as to why Harper hasn’t come out yet.
The supporting cast do provide some light relief. There is Dan Levy as Abby’s best friend John (basically doing his exact David from Schitt’s Creek schtick), Aubrey Plaza as Harper’s ex-girlfriend Riley, who has amazing chemistry with Abby (and seems a much better prospect than Harper) and Alison Brie (Mad Men, Community, GLOW) as Harper’s uptight sister Sloane, whose children confirm my long-held suspicion that all twins are evil. Some of the best scenes do come from Harper and Sloane’s rivalry, with some farcical physical comedy providing a few laugh-out-loud moments. The lesser-known Mary Holland (who co-wrote the film with DuVall) plays the keen but frequently overlooked third sister Jane.
An early amusing scene involves Abby being given a kid’s chair at a restaurant and another involves her being found in a literal closet by Harper’s Mom (played by Mary Steenburgen), so the writing does have some highlights. I was also delighted that upon arriving at Harper’s family home, Abby finds a Josh Hartnett poster in her childhood bedroom. Dan Levy livens up proceedings when he turns up at the house for the “everything coming to head” finale.
However, thinking about the film after its finished will just have you feeling more annoyed on Abby’s behalf and disgruntled that she gets treated so badly by both Harper and her family. I’m not quite sure what the fantastic Mackenzie Davis (Halt and Catch Fire, Black Mirror, Tully) did to deserve this character – who has not only been made to look dowdy (certainly in contrast to Kristen Stewart and Aubrey Plaza) but also be so hard to like. It’s always fun to see Stewart (known for her serious roles in Personal Shopper, Certain Women etc) in more light-hearted roles and stretching her comedic muscles, although her turn in the unfairly maligned Charlie’s Angels (2019) is even better than this one.
It is frustrating that with some tweaking, particularly of Harper’s character, this could have been so much better. We need a reason to invest in Harper and Abby’s relationship and although Davis and Stewart do get some sweet scenes together, we don’t have enough to go on. We certainly aren’t provided enough to justify what Abby goes through and for her to still want to be with Harper. It also doesn’t help that Stewart and Plaza’s chemistry is so sizzling and you’re left shouting at the screen that Abby should run for the hills with Riley.
It is good to see that mainstream genres such as the rom-com and the Christmas film are starting to become a little more diverse in terms of representation. It’s obviously happening painfully slowly, with 2018’s Love Simon being the last high-profile example. And true representation means that there shouldn’t be so much pressure on each new film with central LGBTQ characters to be the be-all-and-end-all of cinema, they are allowed to be mediocre!
It was never ideal that Happiest Season was centred around a coming-out story, when the obstacles that Harper and Abby face could have come from elsewhere. But I also understand that it’s hard to find a delicate balance in a story such as this. It’s just hoped that LGBTQ characters can become so commonplace in all types of film, that they aren’t under so much scrutiny to represent their entire community every time they appear.
Happiest Season is available on Hulu from November 25 2020.