Happiest Season: The Problem With Harper’s Treatment of Abby and Riley
Happiest Season is at times charming. But the cruelty of Makenzie Davis' Harper toward Abby and Riley (Kristen Stewart and Aubrey Plaza) creates problems.
I enjoyed and even loved Happiest Season, Hulu’s new lesbian Christmas romantic comedy. But like pretty much any queer person with a pulse and a Twitter account, I’ve spent the last week dissecting some of the more troubling aspects of a movie that was meant to be romantic escapist fun.
Some of its issues come from the structure of the film, which shoehorns very real queer struggles into wacky rom-com tropes too fluffy to contain the stakes at hand. Meanwhile the choice to have one half of the lead couple be so aggressively and repeatedly cruel—while her high school ex Riley, played by the ever-perfect Aubrey Plaza was standing right there having all the chemistry in the world with the other romantic lead—was a fatal one.
Like many queer movie fans, and made-for-TV holiday movie enthusiasts, I’ve been eagerly awaiting Happiest Season since it was announced last year. Clea DuVall, lesbian film royalty (But I’m a Cheerleader, Veep, Rory Gilmore’s wife on The Handmaid’s Tale), co-writes and directs a star-studded (and very gay!) cast that includes Kristen Stewart, Dan Levy, Victor Garber, co-writer Mary Holland, and token straight people Mary Steenburgen, Alison Brie, and Mackenzie Davis.
The movie promised a sweet, aspirational romance in the present tense with a happy ending for a wlw couple, which is sadly a rarity in film and television. Adding to the overall gay AF vibe is the soundtrack, the first ever to be wall-to-wall queers. (Check it out on Spotify, it’s pretty damn good.)
For the uninitiated, Happiest Season follows Davis’ Harper and Stewart’s Abby, with Harper introducing Abby to her family for the first time during, of course, the Christmas season. The twist is that on the ride over, Harper tells Abby that, jklol, when she told her last summer that she came out to her family and they took it great, that was actually a lie. She has not come out and since her father is running for mayor, she’s going to wait until after Christmas to come out.
Moreover, Harper lied about Abby, her live-in girlfriend, being gay too. So now they both have to pretend to be straight, platonic roommates while getting through the usual Christmas rom-com hijinks.
Where the script gets into trouble is that it doesn’t distinguish between Harper being closeted and her poor treatment of Abby. The two are separate issues and treating them as one does no favors to Harper, nor others struggling with the closet. As Dan Levy’s beautiful monologue late in the movie alludes to, the closet is a safety mechanism—but it’s not a free pass to treat people like garbage.
The closet didn’t make Harper send Abby to the mall with her scary sister. It didn’t make her text Abby to come hang out and then ignore her so she could drink with her ex-boyfriend. And it definitely didn’t make Harper tell Abby she was “suffocating” her.
Even a brief conversation teasing out that being in the closet doesn’t justify how Harper acted, and that plenty of people in the closet don’t treat others like trash, would have been important. Instead once Harper is out (which the movie takes pains to make clear only happened because Harper’s sister Sloane outed her), and a gesture so small it could never credibly be called grand is made, all bad behavior is washed away.
Sloane outing Harper is fine; Harper outing Riley when they were in high school, and abandoning her to the wolves, is fine; Harper repeating that with Abby at the white elephant party is fine; all the terrible ways Harper treated Abby, which are not acceptable treatment for a roommate either, are fine. And once he shows back up on Christmas morning, Harper’s father’s hesitation to accept his daughter and her girlfriend is also fine.
In a way, it’s the script’s biggest betrayal of both Harper and Abby. With Harper’s family accepting her with so little fanfare, it makes it seem like her fear was all in her head. When Sloane and Harper outing others is so readily forgiven, it sends the message that outing someone isn’t a big deal. With all real and imagined transgressions by and against Abby erased once she’s recognized the girlfriend, it makes it seem like she’s out of her mind. Get ready for a lifetime of gaslighting from the in-laws, Abby!
As Stewart told the Times, “Going back and forth from the comedy to being emotional or hurt was, like, traumatic for me. I would be mad at Mackenzie in the morning.” Performing this movie hurt, and for many, watching it hurt too.
The jarring underlying issue is that Happiest Season attempts to apply the standard rom-com and made-for-TV-holiday-movie tropes to queer life. So Abby having to go back into the closet isn’t framed as a painful regression or being forced to deny an essential part of herself, but rather a fun twist, in the vein of “but the guy she insulted on the plane is the owner of the ornament factory she has to impress to win the Christmas contest!”
Similarly, the idea of Harper and Abby potentially getting caught in Abby’s room together is meant to have the same wacky-sexy-naughty-fun vibe as when Courteney Cox’s Monica appeared from under Chandler’s covers during a surprise reveal on Friends. You can still hear the audience’s gasp as the two characters hide from her brother Ross. Except if Harper and Abby get caught, something terrible could happen.
All of Harper’s behavior adds up to making her feel like something the audience wants Abby to be free of, not someone Abby should be fighting for. Once Riley tells Abby about Harper’s cruelty in high school, where Harper outed Riley and mocked her rather than standing up for her or finding an excuse that protected them both, it becomes incredibly difficult to root for the lead couple to get back together, or for Harper at all.
With this information, Harper’s other transgressions go from frustrating to part of a larger pattern. Sadly, it’s a pattern Harper repeats when her sister outs her and she throws Abby under the (lesbian) bus.
In contrast, Riley connects Abby to queerness, bringing her to an LGBTQ bar to decompress and enjoy a Christmas-themed drag performance. It’s the most relaxed and comfortable Abby is on screen since the opening scenes, a chance to glimpse Abby’s authentic self before Harper summons her back to heterosexuality, and where she once again ignores and disappoints her. Riley actually talks to Abby at the various holiday parties whereas Harper keeps leaving her to please her family, especially her father. It’s not hard for the natural chemistry between Plaza and Stewart to take over, aided and abetted by Riley’s boss power suits and that fit from the white elephant party.
It’s possible to appreciate a movie and still want better from it, and for our community. Happiest Season feels like a stepping stone—a necessity to get us to a different (hopefully better) place in queer filmmaking. In Happiest Season, what romantic comedies usually play for as hijinks smacks a bit harder when underneath it is the reality that Harper’s family could disown her, or harm Abby, making it hard to enjoy the movie as it was intended.
For some viewers, especially those who are closeted, questioning, or who come from more conservative backgrounds and can’t or couldn’t count on a warm welcome, Harper’s story is especially important. Given the mainstream platform and plot, Happiest Season will reach far more straight audiences than the vast majority of queer cinema. Here’s hoping it opens the door wider for more diverse stories that resonate better with the community.