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The displacement of theatrical releases during the pandemic, forced into an often confusing digital netherworld, has meant that we have little to no idea just how well certain films have performed this year. Studios are reticent to reveal how many of us are willing to fork out $20 for a night on the couch. While, yes, we’ll all survive as a people without ever knowing the numbers attached to Scoob!, there is something a little disheartening about never knowing what an impact the lesbian-led Christmas comedy Happiest Season would have had at the box office. Originally intended for a wide cinema release from Sony, its very existence as a shamelessly mainstream and unashamedly gay studio crowd-pleaser was in itself a small victory, with queer stories still kept within the restrictive outskirts of Hollywood. Instead, it’s now headed to Hulu in the US, which brings with it by no means a small audience, but one accustomed to a more diverse set of stories, a low-stakes click less of a bold statement than a ticket.
Commercial impact is obviously not the most important way to judge a film’s success, especially as streaming continues to extend shelf-life, but for one as rare as this, for penny-pinching, tunnel-visioned studio execs, having proof, as depressing as that might sound, that, yes, a mass audience will happily head to see a gay movie, remains important (it’s no coincidence that Happiest Season was given the green light just two months after Love Simon became a modest hit in 2018). It’s therefore a shame that we’ll never get to see any tangible result but in a way it also takes the heat off, allowing Happiest Season to be exactly what it is without any added hurdle: warm comfort food at a time when many of us need it the most.
The set-up (one that bears more than a passing resemblance to Jenna Laurenzo’s 2018 Thanksgiving comedy Lez Bomb) sees girlfriends Harper (Mackenzie Davis) and Abby (Kristen Stewart) heading into two very different holiday seasons. For Harper, it means travelling to see her Waspy family while for Abby, whose parents died a decade prior, it means pet-sitting and waiting for Christmas to be over. But on a romantic December evening, Harper invites Abby back with her, a grand statement to her family who have never met Abby before. On the way, Harper fills her in on one slight issue: she’s not come out to her family and to survive the holiday, they must pretend to be friends.
It’s a situation that many queer people can loosely relate to: dating someone whose comfort with their sexuality is far less progressed, and it can be an unpleasant, at times psychologically unhealthy, place to be in. While the writer-director Clea DuVall (best known for her presence in front of the camera in The Faculty and Girl Interrupted) and the co-writer Mary Holland have used it as the basis for a zippy holiday comedy, there is also a growing awareness throughout of the emotional weight that comes with such deception. So while Happiest Season works remarkably well as a straightforward Christmas movie, a wittier, warmer cousin to The Family Stone perhaps, there’s also a level of nuance and grit that one wouldn’t usually expect from something quite so festive and quite so glossy.
There is a certain amount of self-censorship and performance within any family dynamic, and having fun with how that plays out is a vital ingredient of broad comedies such as this (seeing your other half around their family for the first time is an adjustment regardless of the sitcom set-up). But what makes Happiest Season that much more effective is that for queer people, self-censorship and performance are already a part of so many other dynamics, a deeply embedded awareness of difference that requires us to construct and break down a wall of protection depending on the situation.
Harper’s family – perfectionist parents played by Mary Steenburgen and Victor Garber and sisters, one brittle and joyless played by Alison Brie and one puppyish and perpetually sidelined played by Holland – have a more uncomfortably airless dynamic than most and for Harper to be gay when her box-ticking script has already been written for her seems impossible and it causes a rift between her and Abby, who starts to question whether she wants to be taken back into the closet by someone she thought she loved. The subtle choreography of what it feels like for Abby to be left out of Harper’s family, to be treated as a friend rather than a partner, to see her usually warm and affectionate girlfriend freeze in front of her, is quietly aching to watch for it acts as a reminder for Abby that no matter how progressive things might seem, there is always going to be a gap between how we want things to be and how they are.
Stewart, who isn’t always the most comfortable in a broader studio setting, works incredibly well here, selling her nervy, and often very funny, comic moments while also adding depth to some of the last act sentiment. There’s an effortless chemistry between her and Davis as well as her and Aubrey Plaza, playing Harper’s secret ex with a bittersweet backstory, who gets to be more than just a bitchy spanner in the works. So many of the characters, who could otherwise have been treated like one-note types, get more flesh than usual from Dan Levy as Abby’s best friend to Holland, who threatens to steal the whole movie with her consistently funny, and actually rather tragic, ignored sister act. Near the end, DuVall and Holland put a few steps wrong with some slightly over-egged physical comedy and a final “No, I’m sorry” meet-back-up-cute that doesn’t land with enough of an impact, but they also avoid some obvious cliches, refusing to smooth out some of the film’s established creases, so while the happy ending is happy it’s not one without caveats.
Happiest Season exists within well-worn framework but still feels fresh, a sprightly and substantial comedy that will be an immediate addition to the Christmas movie rotation for many, including myself. We may never know just how many people would have paid to go see a mainstream gay movie such as this but there is something comforting about a wide cross-section of families gathering over the next month to easily watch, and enjoy, it together, a pre-warmed blanket of a movie to remind us that lesbians aren’t just for depressing period dramas and fetishistic thrillers, they’re for Christmas too.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Happiest Season review – queer Christmas comedy is a festive treat | Kristen Stewart