Director: Clea DuVall
Stars: Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Aubrey Plaza
The ratio of good Christmas films to… not? It’s not exactly even. What’s more, nobody’s reasonably expecting any different. Even more-so than the flimsiest of rom-coms, they’re the background fodder, the inconsequential ambiance, the backdrop to cosy evenings that are more notably about something else, be that a stilted family reunion or a wrapping session with a significant other.
Clea DuVall’s Happiest Season doesn’t redress the balance single-handedly, but it does represent one of the more welcome, palatable and readily enjoyable new entries to this genre in recent years.
Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis) are a couple doing well. They live together in Pittsburgh and Abby is thinking of proposing. Harper has invited her home to meet the family for the holidays, and Abby thinks this might just be the perfect time to pop the question. But, of course, there’s a catch. Harper’s kin don’t know that she’s a lesbian. At her girlfriend’s behest, Abby plays along that they’re just platonic, and over the course of a five-day holiday gets a window into the world of Harper’s immediate family.
Happiest Season tilts toward Abby’s outsider status in its comedic situ. A meal at a restaurant finds her sat in a chair about two inches lower than everyone else, while there are plenty more incidents that push her to the peripheries, just as she’s trying to slyly ingratiate herself. A pair of troublesome tykes manage to get her implicated in a shoplifting incident and all the while little signals suggest to Abby that Harper’s middle class family- particularly the politically ambitious father, Ted (Victor Garber) – might not be as accepting as she had hoped.
DuVall has assembled a strong cast for her winter warmer. The prospect of this match-up between Stewart and Davis already put this on my radar as a holiday must-see, but the coups don’t stop there. The wonderful Mary Steenburgen is the marvelously snooty matriarch, Tipper, balancing well-intentioned snark with wide-eyed naivety. Alison Brie glides in like an ice queen as Harper’s catty sister Sloane. And the mighty Aubrey Plaza gives a remarkably against-type performance as Harper’s high-school ex, Riley. She could do extraordinary things in straight roles (no pun intended). Any one of these performers would be enough to get me on board with a new release. Having all of them is like, well, Christmas coming early. RuPaul fans even get a couple of high-stepping cameos from BenDeLaCreme and Jinkx Monsoon.
For her part, DuVall plays it all with ease and class. The grating temperament that typifies most Christmas films doesn’t manifest here. Instead her tempo is nearer to the traditional rom-com. Her frames are clean and warm, her pacing is gentle but breezy. Happiest Season is built a certain way and delivers on those terms. Like the best of its ilk, it is designed to be consumed without an ounce of difficulty or challenge. And because it works so well on those terms, it slyly gets us invested. By the time Abby has two days left and feels a personal crisis rising, we’re there with her, emotionally. Stewart makes us want the best for her, and the prospect of that not happening tilts Happiest Season toward cringe-comedy.
But not too far. What we have here is witty and appropriately mid-tempo. It’s a welcome throwback, actually, eschewing recent trends in mainstream comedy to lunge for gross-out or roll the dice on improv. Happiest Season is a modern update on a very classical approach. In the process, and by behaving so conservatively, it normalises as opposed to weaponises its gay focus, and casually makes fools of those without the capacity to accept others… or themselves. This pointedly isn’t a movie trying to make up for decades of hetero normative rom-coms. After all, we’re decades into the existence of queer cinema now. Rather it runs with the confidence that there’s nothing here that needs to be pushed as radical.
As the film itself points out, there’s too much pain and struggle in defending your own existence. Funny and heartfelt, DuVall’s film is a keeper, for this yuletide and others to come.