‘Happiest Season’ is everything a Christmas movie should be
If you’re like me, you will already have your Christmas Day watch list planned out in exhaustive detail, because Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without Die Hard, It’s a Wonderful Life and Home Alone. For a long time I have scoffed at the idea of a ‘new film’ elbowing its way into my carefully curated festive movie line-up, because when was the last time a decent Christmas movie was released? Well, 2020 continues to surprise us all, because Clea Duvall’s Happiest Season may just be a contender for a spot on the list.
The story follows Abby (Kristen Stewart), who is head-over-heels in love with her girlfriend Harper (Mackenzie Davis), with whom she has been getting serious over the last year – enough so to have purchased an engagement ring with the intention of proposing on Christmas morning. Harper has invited Abby to spend Christmas with her family, but on the drive there, she reveals that she hasn’t yet come out to her parents and has told them that Abby is her roommate. Let conflict commence!
If you have ever seen a film before, you can probably guess how the story is going to play out as soon as the setup has been set up. Harper’s parents (played by the always excellent Mary Steenburgen and Victor Garber) are loving, but traditionalist (her father is running for mayor), and this allows an organic tension to brew throughout the course of the movie until its inevitable eruption. On its surface the plot has a lot in common with Meet the Parents, but is, on the whole, more grounded and authentic thanks to its stronger sense of emotion and fully-rounded cast of characters. And even though the journey of coming out to your parents is not one that every viewer will have experienced, the film achieves universality by keeping the story focused on Abby’s difficulties in navigating the situation and willingness to put aside her own discomfort to make things easier for her partner.
Further layers are added in the precarious relationships between Harper and her two sisters and a couple of exes that show up to complicate matters, and there is strong comic relief in the character of John, Abby’s friend who is always at the other end of the phone to offer support and shrewd observations (his funniest lines concern the patriarchy and its roots in the ‘archaic institution of marriage’). DuVall is smart to keep the subplots and hilarious side-characters as grounded as everything else; the movie has a cohesive theme, which is about accepting who you are and not being afraid to show this to the world, and every element of the story is focused on delivering this message. Lesser comedy films would fall at this hurdle, adding subplots just to pad things out, but no element of Happiest Season is wasted or superfluous. If the story has a flaw, it’s that its side characters are too interesting; there has been a whole ‘It should’ve been Aubrey Plaza’ discourse online since the film’s release which is understandable due to Plaza’s undeniable magnetism in every scene in which she appears, especially when contrasted with Harper’s emotional abandonment of Abby (which some viewers have construed as mistreatment). The realistic flaws and complexities of these relationships, however, make for a compelling narrative that keeps you hooked in from start to finish, whether you think Abby should end up with Harper or not.
It’s so rare to find new Christmas movies that can match up to the old classics, but Happiest Season passes the test with a flying rainbow-flag of bright colours. This is a film that has clearly been made with a lot of love and authenticity, and DuVall delivers a powerful message with her intuitive approach to writing and directing; that acceptance and openness should be the foundations of family, both old and new. It’s beautiful to see a modern representation of queerness that is not marred by tragedy, a film that is light and entertaining while still managing to pose deeper questions about traditionalism and growth in modern society.
Thanks for reading and have a wonderful, restful Christmas! If you enjoyed Happiest Season, make sure you check out But I’m a Cheerleader (1999), which acts as a beautiful companion piece to this story.