Christmas movies exist in a snow globe-like vacuum – what goes on inside is effectively always the same, but the shape, style, and color is a little more malleable. Still, when you pick one up and shake, it’s almost never a surprise. Hence, the era of Hallmark Movies! Clea DuVall‘s queer Christmas flick, “Happiest Season,” is a breakthrough for LBGTQ rom-com representation, in several regards, but sways so extremely between heartfelt earnestness and in-your-face-mockery that it’s hard to take its ambitions seriously in the moments when it counts the most.
Beginning with a cute Candy Cane Lane date, ending with a slapstick bit that falls completely flat, we meet Harper (Mackenzie Davis) and Abby (Kristen Stewart), a lesbian couple who have very different thoughts on how to celebrate the last two weeks of the holiday season. Harper was hoping all the lights would get her partner in the jolly Christmas spirit, but, assuming she’s going to be spending the weeks alone while Harper goes home, she’s not exactly beaming at all the red and green icicles on each corner. But, in the heat of the moment, Harper invites Abby to meet her family, promising her that she will do a complete 180 on her feelings come Christmas morning.
Abby decides she wants to propose to Harper on December 25. The problem? Harper isn’t actually out to her family yet. Abby confronts her about this, asking why she would invite her if she was going to lie about their relationship – selling the story that they’re just roommates (but live in a one bedroom apartment – not very well thought through). When Abby asks her gay friend John (Dan Levy) for advice, his response is to not give into the archaic institution that is heteronormative mating rituals. Abby frequently calls him whenever in panic mode, throughout the flick, and these scenes get tired quick. Upon meeting Harper’s family, we start to see why she has not come out to her parents – her mother (Mary Steenburgen) is perpetually disapproving, while her father (Victor Garber) only cares about his election campaign for Mayor. Harper’s sisters, Sloane and Jane (Alison Brie, Mary Holland), are where the bulk of the humor and conflict lay, however, the trio never having stopped competing for their parents affections.
The set-up is all very familiar, and, so is the pay-off; it’s the queer details embedded in the backstory and the fear of homophobic repercussions that feel long overdue. Aubrey Plaza‘s character Riley, being the scene stealer of the movie – her high school relationship with Harper, and the reason it fell to pieces, being the most dramatically successful aspect of the narrative. Plaza might be doing the best work of her career here, relying on subtle looks trying to veil a pain she’s experienced rather than playing up her dead-pan ‘Parks & Rec’ delivery. But these earned moments are deflated when John starts making safe space jokes while shopping for fish.
Sadly, “Happiest Season” leans heavier into its millennial gags about coconut oil and Instagram photos than it does the solemn nature of the relationship at its center, moving so snappily between intense tones that the humor can read like its excusing blatantly awful behavior – because that’s just how we humans are – or is kicking a puppy that’s already on the ground (possibly part of the point, but I did not find any charm). The Jane character is a one dimensional stereotype of the creative family outcast, poking fun at her 10 years of worldbuilding for a convoluted fantasy novel she’s sure will make the family millions (as an aspiring author, to use a Twitter term I hate: I feel attacked, but not actually offended; frankly, it’s just not funny.)
Unlike a film like “Knives Out,” unafraid to use its teeth when tearing into prejudiced relatives, “Happiest Season” never gives you much of a reason to care about the family tree, yet it aims to redeem them rather than have a real conversation. Perhaps it simply plays poorly in this present climate, but it reads very “We have to make peace with the Right if America is going to heal over the holidays.” Much of what the film presents as humor simply isn’t amusing. To go off on a brief tangent, my life became a living hell during middle school when something similar that happened to Plaza’s character happened to me – the movie handles her side of things marvelously, but then throws away all the nuance when Alison Brie’s Capital-B, Bitch older sister turns into a raging psychopath, her role in the film being obviously telegraphed the moment she shows up: it’s very Screenwriting 101. Also, pick a tone and roll with it. Are you tackling these themes seriously, or just making a queer version of “The Family Stone,” that feels almost twenty years old? A few scenes feel like they’re out of a completely different movie; particularly, a mall shoplifting mishap which is almost straight up “Observe and Report,” it’s so forcibly over-the-top parodic (and plain idiotic).
Having been looking forward to this flick for a few months now, I was left incredibly let down. I’m a huge Mackenzie Davis fan, but I actually think she’s woefully miscast here, being frequently distracted by her efforts to come off as uncomfortable in her own skin. Perhaps this is a personal bias, as she’s near unrecognizable as the perfect middle child wearing a perpetual mask. Her emotional radar is well-measured, the issue is the material; it’s like a scarf that just doesn’t match the hat, and the writing can be a detriment to its two leads. Stewart, always a treat to watch perform, is the heart and soul of the film – which might be part of the problem (if Sarah Jessica Parker was the MVP of the aforementioned ‘Family Stone,’ I doubt it would have become one of those “We know it’s not good, but we still adore it,” contemporary Christmas classics.) Her scenes with Plaza, especially, easily make up the film’s most mature material, but a few great actors and some much needed representational drama aside, “Happiest Season” doesn’t add much more to the rom-com Christmas cannon besides a new snow globe being placed on the mantel.
“Happiest Season” begins streaming on Hulu on Wednesday, Nov. 25