Dir. Clea DuVall; Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Dan Levy, Aubrey Plaza
[2 out of 4 stars]
Unlike Devin, I am not usually a major fan of holiday movies. Aside from Elf (2003) and How The Grinch Stole Christmas (1966) (only the original, never the Jim Carrey version), I don’t watch any others. But some friends and I recently decided to sit down and watch Happiest Season (2020), which is more of a rom-com in holiday movie’s clothing, and I found it to be delightfully airy and happy, albeit somewhat frustrating.
At the beginning of the film, Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper’s (Mackenzie Davis) relationship appears strong (as evidenced by one scene of them enjoying an evening stroll through a Christmas light-decorated neighborhood). In fact, Abby confides in her friend John (Dan Levy), she plans to propose to Harper on Christmas morning. When Harper invites Abby back to her parents’ house for Christmas, Abby is unsure, since she does not like Christmas, but eventually she acquiesces, and the two set off. It is only en route that Harper reveals to Abby that not only are her parents unaware that she and Abby are dating, they also have no idea that Harper is gay. They, in fact, think that Abby is Harper’s platonic orphan roommate. Somehow, Harper still convinces Abby to come home with her, saying that once her parents love Abby, that will make it easier for Harper to come out to them. While there, Abby ends up meeting and bonding with Harper’s ex Riley (Aubrey Plaza). The usual rom-com laughs ensue as Abby painfully tries to reckon with the person that Harper becomes while she is with her family.
My biggest issue with the movie is Harper’s character. Although I understand how difficult it must be to come out to your family, that feature completely encompasses her character. Her defining characteristic is fear, which apparently leads her to do things like spend late nights out with her high school ex-boyfriend and abandon Abby at parties. The film’s reasoning for these slights is not fully developed, and so there were parts of the film where I did not want Harper and Abby to end up together, which is how you know a rom-com has really gone wrong. Harper is clearly not ready to come out as who she is, and Abby wants someone who is ready. Their whole relationship hinges on this one moment of coming out, and Harper is defined completely by this dynamic. Because she is so underdeveloped, she and Abby do not seem to fit together, and the film’s very foundational relationship is compromised. Harper struggles with her family because they expect her to be their golden child, a sentiment they express clearly throughout the film; one sister “sells gift baskets” and the other one is plain odd, so Harper is her parents’ saving grace in this judgmental and narrow-minded clan. Screenwriters Clea DuVall and Mary Holland focus on the friction between Harper and her family, but they would have done better to spend more time showing us how healthy and strong Abby and Harper’s relationship is so we want to root for it. They should have made Harper’s motives and complexities more clear so that we better understand her character.
In addition, I was frustrated by how perfect the plot all seemed (although perhaps that is to be expected in a light holiday movie). Harper’s family is absurdly wealthy and lives in a picturesque brick mansion complete with a sprinkling of sparkling snow and red-bowed wreaths adorning each window. Each family member is always carefully coiffed and made up, even early in the mornings. The season is filled with glitzy, elaborate holiday parties where the pressure is on because Harper’s father (Victor Garber) is running for mayor. This plot detail, of course, puts extra pressure on Harper’s possible coming out, since her family is under close scrutiny and any scandal could ruin her father’s campaign. I would just love to see a holiday film (like this one) that is not based in a wealthy, WASP-y neighborhood where even the gravest of family dramas can be resolved by a good night’s sleep. There never actually seems to be anything on the line in the film, especially once you start to root against Harper and Abby ending up together. The film tries to raise the stakes by including John’s story about his father kicking him out of the house when he came out, but we never worry about that happening here.
Since one of the film’s two protagonists is confusing and underdeveloped, the full weight of the film falls on Stewart, who pulls it off quite well. Her awkward comedic timing and quick quips draw your eye to her in each scene. One morning, she is seated in the corner of the kitchen and awkwardly tries to make herself visible and greet each person with a cheery “good morning!” She is clearly trying so hard to endear herself to this family and earn their blessing. (She should really be cast in more comedic roles.) Her love for Harper also shines through in gentle caresses and sweet gazes. Sometimes I just wished that sincerity could have been targeted at a more worthy recipient.
Happiest Season is a fun, sometimes perplexing watch if you’re looking for a funny holiday rom-com and can put aside your desire for complexity or realism. Although at times it lacks a main couple to cheer on, it all wraps up neatly in a beautiful Christmas bow and will leave you with the warm fuzzy feelings we’re all looking for at this time of year.