It says something about our culture when the most offensive thing about a Christmas comedy centered around a lesbian couple isn’t the – gasp! – lesbianism or gay themes, but how otherwise unoriginal and derivative it is. But that’s exactly what Happiest Season is all about: a charming, family-friendly Christmas comedy about a same-sex couple that proves even gay-themed comedies can be just as formulaic and predictable as the straight ones. And just as fun.
Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis) are in love! After living together for a few months Abby is eager to finally tie the knot, which doesn’t sit well with her best friend John (Dan Levy), who finds the whole marriage thing “archaic”, a tool of the patriarchy. But love is love, as they say, and Abby just wants to marry the woman she loves.
Only it’s Christmas time, which Harper usually spends back home. Not wanting her to be alone, Harper invites Abby to spend the holidays with her, and to meet the rest of her extended family. Abby has been wanting to propose to Harper for awhile, and what better time and place than surrounded by family and friends? And on Christmas? What could possibly go wrong?
There’s just one problem, because there’s always a problem: Harper hasn’t come out to her parents yet, a conservative power couple (Victor Garber and Mary Steenburgen) who’ve been led to believe Abby is Harper’s parentless roommate. Uh, oh! Let the shenanigans begin!
With the Big Lie established, Happiest Season doesn’t waste a second before getting down to the business of being your standard holiday comedy of errors, misunderstandings and goodwill. Director Clea DuVall, with co-writer and star Mary Holland, have crafted a perfectly fine, proper Christmas comedy that looks, sounds, and feels like a Christmas comedy should, just with a lesbian twist. There’s not a second of screen time that doesn’t feel predictable or assembled by the perfect Christmas Movie Algorithm, complete with a stream of syncopated Christmas songs that help further the theme even more (if you listen closely).
Happiest Season wouldn’t have worked as well as it does had the chemistry between its leading ladies, and Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis make the material work better than it probably deserves. Stewart is shockingly likable as the openly gay pet sitter who will do anything to make her lady love happy, even if that means slinking back into the closet – literally and figuratively. I’ve never been that big a fan of the Twilight actress, honestly, but Stewart is fantastic here, and it’s great to finally see her smile.
But it’s Mackenzie Davis’ show, demonstrating once again that she’s one of the most interesting, underrated actresses in the business, one that Hollywood simply doesn’t know what to do with. Usually relegated to playing lesbians (like this movie) or androgyous action stars (Terminator: Dark Fate), Davis always stands out, but you can’t help but feel there’s a breakout performance in there somewhere past the cliches. She’s able to elicit more sympathy using just her eyes than some actresses can with the best fake-nose prosthetics.
A stellar supporting cast also helps elevate Happiest Season above the usual Hallmark Channel Christmas turd factory. Victor Garber and Mary Steenburgen are lovely standouts as Harper’s politically-conscious – and hyper conservative – parents, and the movie is smart enough to never devolve them into cartoonish stereotypes. What a rare treat to see Steenburgen play someone so prickly neurotic and high-strung – more, please!
I’m not sure what to make of Dan Levy, or his performance. After watching him redefine the gay leading man for years on Schitt’s Creek it’s weird seeing him play what’s been, traditionally, perhaps the most stereotypically gay role of them all: the flamboyantly, aggressively supportive bestie. He’s still pretty funny, and gets the best line in the movie (“There’s nothing more erotic than concealing your authentic selves!”), but I honestly thought we’d seen the last of this type of character years ago.
Also funny is Mary Holland (who also co-write the film) as Jane, Harper’s neglected older sister who yearns for her family’s approval and dreams of writing the next big YA novel. This one-note caricature might’ve been as forgettable, as they usually are, had a less funny actress played her, but Holland makes the most of it.
Apart from the lesbian angle, you’ve seen this movie before. You’ve definitely met these people before, who live in mansions and have awesome careers, yet still manage to be total incompetents when needed. Subplots about Harper’s exes (of both genders, including a wasted Aubrey Plaza) go nowhere, and musical swells signal when it’s time to laugh and when to pull out the tissues. Isn’t it odd how a beloved, successful daughter could somehow conceal her lesbianism from her politically savvy family in this day and age, especially with a mom totally obsessed with social media?
Like everything else that happens in the movie (that could have very easily been solved with logic or just, you know, asking questions) you just go with it. Maybe that’s the whole point, that even with our different socioeconomic and sexual orientations, we’re all train wrecks around the holidays. Just let the spirit move you, like the singalong at the local drag club in a supposedly conservative town.
So its a good Christmas movie, but is it a good movie movie? While nowhere as subversive, smart or ground-breaking as a similarly LGBTQ themed comedy like Booksmart, Happiest Season is less revolutionary and more revelatory about its leading ladies. Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis lead a genuinely affecting cast through tired cliches into something far more enjoyable than it might have been with lesser talent and broadcast on basic cable. Yes, this movie is totally predictable and you can see the resolution coming before the hot chocolate starts to chill, but sometimes you need a little cinematic comfort food to get you through. A little Christmas box of heteronormativity, wrapped in a fabulous little rainbow bow.