Happiest Season (2020) - Clea DuVall
Christmas movies are hard to get right. They need to give you a perfect balance of schmaltz, joy, festivity, humour, and heartfelt emotion. Get any of these ingredients wrong and the film invariably fails. The things worse, Christmas films often allow for more schmaltz or cheesiness than you would normally tolerate. It's why so many Christmas films fail and so few become enduring perennial classics. Happiest Season, directed and co-written by Clea DuVall is one I can safely and confidently says gets the formula right. And what makes the film even more enjoyable is that it does so with a pleasantly entertaining and moving queer story, which sets it apart from most holiday films.
Abby (an exceptional Kirsten Stewart), is planning to propose to her girlfriend Harper (MacKenzie Davis, brilliant) over Christmas. Abby is an orphan and so typically spends Christmas alone, so Harper decides to invite her to spend Christmas with her family. Abby hasn't met her family and is initially excited to meet her family. The only problem is that, en route to the family home, Harper confesses that not only do her parents not know about Abby, they also don't know that she is gay.
A premise of this kind could have been, in less confident and assured hands, problematic. It's ripe for misjudged jokes and hijinks. Thankfully, DuVall and co-writer Mary Holland avoid such cliches and rather than playing the setup for jokes (although there are numerous hilarious moments) the film instead becomes an exploration of the pressures and expectations placed on family members. It also explores the challenges many gay people face with building up the courage to come out to your family, and how such moments can be terrifying prospects that may forever change the image your family has of you. It also explores the pull between the person you are, and want to be, and who you want to be that person with and who you used to be, and what the expectations and assumptions people from your past put upon you, and how these shackles can be so daunting to throw off.
Initially, and understandably Abby is upset and angry at Harper's revelation. Even more so by Harper's idea that Abby plays along with a lie about them being roommates for the duration of the break. This immediately creates an awkward scenario for Abby, and Kristen Stewart navigates it excellently showing a keen skill for comedy and embarrassment. This is all made worse (and therefore funnier) when we meet Harper's family.
Harper's parents are awful. They are both perfectionists and their parenting has bred competitiveness between their three daughters. Harper remains to darling, successful daughter. Ted, Harper's father, is running for mayor and looking to impress a local donor in his bid. As such, there is a heightened tension as everyone needs to be on their best behaviour and there can be no surprises. Harper is called upon to be the impressive daughter, which continually pulls her away from spending time with Abby, only making things worse. Harper's sisters, the older, prim Sloane, who gave us a successful career as a lawyer to set up a business with her husband selling gift baskets, but is also hiding her own shameful secret she's hoping to hide from her parents. This has dented the shine in her parent's eyes, and they now shower more attention on their twin grandchildren. Harper's other sister, Jane (played by co-writer Mary Holland) is the runt of the litter. Unexceptional, she is overlooked by the parents, and can never impress them, despite being the go-to for all technical issues in the house. This delivers a series of smart jokes as she sorts out printers, the internet etc. Holland is excellent and steals most of her scenes through her endearing but overbearing positivity and happiness. She tries so hard to remain happy and earn the attention and love of her parents and siblings, but this always falls on deaf ears.
All of this makes Abby begin to question the person she is in love with. She begins to not recognise Harper and sees a side of her that had previously remained hidden. This is compounded by the continuing need to keep their relationship hidden. The real heart of the film lies in these moments and both Stewart and Davis carry off the intimate and uncomfortable moments with nuance. It's a delicately explored situation and one which reveals insecurities about their relationship and the people they want to be.
Things only go from bad to worse for Abby as beyond the family she gets to meet two of Harper's exes, including her first gay love; Riley (Aubrey Plaza, always fantastic with her wry sense of humour). An unlikely bond forms between Abby and Riley. Riley is comfortable in her sexuality and has lived through the pain of rejection that Harper is now subjecting Abby to. What causes more concern is Harper renewing her flirtations with Connor. Firstly, Connor is surprisingly invited by Harper's parent's family dinner. Then as he pursues Harper, they spend more time reminiscing about the past. Harper finds his affections seductive and is pulled into the simplicity of her old life, leaving Abby wondering who is this person she had intended to propose too.
Abby is supported throughout by her gay best friend, John (Daniel Levy, who is a joyous delight throughout and has many of the films best lines), who, having been through his own coming out trauma, can see things from both sides, but is endearingly fiercely loyal to Abby.
Predictably, but no less satisfying the film culminates in revelations upon revelations as all of the major characters converge for the families legendary Christmas Eve party. Again, is less assured hands the film could have lost focus in the final act, but it never does. It remains comical and moving in equal measure, allowing each narrative strand time to breathe and unfold, whilst tying them together and, in true Christmas fashion, bringing the family closer together. What's also immensely moving and satisfying is how the relationship between Harper and Abby reaches its conclusion. There is no simple and easy coming together for Abby and Harper, and big decisions and commitments are required. Considering the complexity and nature of their queer relationship and the emphasis the film places on coming out to family this feels