As we approach Thanksgiving, television is already firmly entrenched in the holiday movie season: Hallmark and Lifetime have begun rolling out their dozens of cookie-cutter Christmas love stories starring city gals, country men, and interchangeable plot elements involving saving small towns or romancing royalty. What a relief, then, that Clea DuVall’s Christmas rom-com Happiest Season instantly and effortlessly breaks that mold while simultaneously being the kind of sweet, poignant, funny film you’ll want to rewatch every December.
Having wrapped production mere weeks before the coronavirus lockdown at the start of 2020, Happiest Season is the first studio-backed (Sony’s TriStar Pictures) queer holiday rom-com. Truly that is a Christmas miracle; the same goes for the shift from theatrical release to streaming (via Hulu) just in time for what promises to be an emotionally fraught Thanksgiving.
Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis) are a young couple in the flush of love, living together in Pittsburgh and approaching their one-year anniversary of meeting on Christmas. That holiday cheer is all the more remarkable given Abby’s aversion to Christmas since the loss of her parents at 19. So in an impromptu bit of sentimentality, Harper invites Abby to spend the holidays with her family in the suburbs—and Abby is ready to meet that commitment with a Yuletide proposal.
There’s just one problem: Harper is not out to her family, the WASPy Caldwells, for fear of tainting father Ted’s (Victor Garber) mayoral campaign. And while the last thing that Abby wants is to go back into the closet, she reluctantly agrees to it for the chance to see what kind of family created her favorite person.
Unfortunately, that answer is an uptight, neurotic clan overseen by Instagram-obsessed Tipper (Mary Steenburgen). The grim status quo is further maintained by Harper’s two sisters: Sloane (Alison Brie), who wields passive-aggressive commentary like a sharpened candy cane, and Jane (Mary Holland, who co-wrote the film with DuVall), the perpetually ignored yet relentlessly cheery middle child. Introduced as Harper’s “roommate” (the queer meta jokes begin) but treated more like an afterthought, Abby is caught in the nightmarish scenario of observing family traditions without ever being allowed to participate in her rightful place.
In contrast to other rom-coms that rely on ridiculous slapstick to fulfill the latter half of the formula, Happiest Season is wickedly funny in ways that embrace this awful situation. An absurd running gag has everyone characterizing Abby as a tragic Dickensian orphan; Stewart’s deadpan delivery only enhances the increasingly farcical indignities that Abby must endure, from being asked to take the family Christmas photo to babysitting Sloane’s bratty twins. And there is physical comedy in Harper and Abby leaning on stereotypes about “girl time,” and joint bathroom trips in order to steal any scrap of alone time together.
But for a rom-com, Happiest Season is also an unexpected tearjerker. Its humor is frequently edged with bitter truths about being (literally) shoved into the closet, hiding a relationship in plain sight, or loving someone who cannot be true about who they really are.
Davis, who similarly played a young woman paralyzed with fears of coming out in the Black Mirror episode “San Junipero,” makes Harper almost too unsympathetic in her desperate need to regress to her straight-passing teenage self. The audience is clearly on Abby’s side, but Harper also isn’t wrong.
This thoughtful consideration of the wide variety of coming-out stories is a testament to the overwhelmingly queer cast and crew. DuVall, who publicly came out around the time of her directorial debut, 2016’s The Intervention, drew from her experiences of being closeted during the making of queer 1999 classic, But I’m a Cheerleader. Stewart has been open about her bisexuality for some time; while her character in 2019’s Charlie’s Angels was ostensibly queer, the role of Abby is so much more multifaceted. And while he plays the stodgy patriarch, Garber is gay, having come out publicly in 2012 after decades of his love life being an open secret in Hollywood.
In terms of queer supporting cast, it’s a toss-up between Dan Levy (in his first project since Schitt’s Creek ended earlier this year) and Aubrey Plaza as to who was the better scene-stealer: It’s hard to resist Plaza’s Riley, Harper’s former BFF and first love, while Levy brightens and sharpens every moment he’s on-screen as Abby’s best friend John. Beloved queer musical duo Tegan and Sara also contributed the boppy holiday single “Make You Mine,” because of course they did. But rather than make the movie “political” or otherwise unapproachable, this talented team ensures an authentic representation of queer people’s lived experiences.
Yet in truth, Happiest Season is, like so many entries in the holiday subgenre, about grappling with impossible familial expectations. The Caldwells have created a cheerily toxic environment in which all three of their daughters fear losing their parents’ love and support if they don’t fulfill very strict, narrowly defined roles that leave no room for the spontaneous joys and heartbreaks of adult life. That tension will be familiar to all who have weathered past holiday seasons, while the comfort of a happy ending is a much-needed panacea. You’ll want to spend every future Christmas with Abby, Harper, and DuVall.
Happiest Season premieres Nov. 25 on Hulu.