'Happiest Season' is a deeply heartfelt film that earns its spot as a holiday staple.
- 🎄Top to bottom excellent cast.
- 🎄Characters with deceptively more dimension than their typecast roles.
- 🎄Dan Levy's monologue will make you cry.
- 🎄Some of the comedy doesn't quite land.
Anyone familiar with gay romantic comedies like Happiest Season can tell you that the trope of the closeted partner hiding their out partner from their parents is hackneyed to the point that it feels like the subgenre can’t break free into any new dimension. This is partially an artifact of the days before marriage equality, where coming out was almost the entirety of the gay experience as portrayed in the zeitgeist, and rom coms are not generally films that seek to challenge status quo. Rom coms are usually comfort food movies, and coming out is a nearly universally shared gay experience that easily lends itself to comic misunderstandings and serves an underserved demographic. Happiest Season doesn’t seek to redefine the subgenre, nor does it try to update much for a more culturally progressive time than its forebears. It does, however, provide enough star power, charisma, and pure sentimentality to stand out as an exemplar for gay rom coms to come.
Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis) have been together for about a year, have moved in together, and are pretty well set on starting a life together. In a fit of passion, Harper invites Abby along to her family’s Christmas, since Abby is without a family of her own and has never met the potential in-laws. However, on the drive over, Harper makes a confession. Not only does her family not know that Abby and Harper are dating, but they don’t even know that Harper is gay. Harper pleads with Abby to keep their relationship quiet for the duration of their stay, as Harper’s dad (Victor Garber) is running for mayor and is attempting to woo a potential donor who hates scandal. (I guess we’re to assume that Harper’s dad is running as a Republican, which puts a bit of a past-due expiration date on his plausible likability, but I digress.) Abby agrees to wait on being honest with Harper's family, but she starts to wonder if Harper is even capable of being honest at all.
This misadventure is populated with a fantastic cast of actors playing to their strengths in roles that should feel arch but are very compelling in nuanced hands. Stewart and Davis have such intense on-screen chemistry that it’s almost a shame that the plot necessitates they suppress it. Alison Brie goes impressively cold as Harper’s ice queen, nuclear family-oriented sister, while Mary Holland lets loose as the youngest sister who can’t stop spouting nonsense words that are apparently the basis of a fantasy novel she’s writing. Garber nails the portrait of a man too focused on his ambitions to treat his family as more than props and assets, while Mary Steenburgen is his social media-obsessed yet obliviously out-of-touch enabler of a wife. Throw in Harper’s hometown ex-boyfriend (Jake McDorman), her ex-girlfriend (Aubrey Plaza), and Abby’s best friend (Dan Levy) providing emotional support over the phone, and you have a stacked set of performers to bounce off one another for absurd shenanigans ranging from dinners gone wrong to chaotic trips to the mall to barely concealed romantic rendevous.
For the most part, the comedy does stick the landing, if in more of a quietly amusing way than as something that will make you laugh out loud, though the occasional line did catch me off guard as a real gem. One sequence involving Abby getting stuck in a closet – Do you get it? – does border on complete nonsense as it fails at both physical and verbal comedy in service of contriving the next scene into place, but overall the film is a briskly paced exploration of clashing personalities and problematic family dynamics. If anything, the film has trouble planting its flag in any specific comedic tone, as Mary Holland’s oddball quirkiness is at tonal odds with Mary Steenburgen’s erudite boomer caricature, which itself rubs up against the attempts at slapstick and improvisation evinced by the film’s bit players. However, it’s also kind of fitting that these clashing styles coexist, as the film is itself about embracing familial differences and rejecting conceptions of so-called reputational perfection.
That theming is ultimately what saves the film from being a cookie-cutter example of ensemble family comedy with a gay coat of paint over the top. Writer-director Clea DuVall invests this story with an authentic sentimentality that allows us to feel the pain of Abby’s involuntary closeting even as her plight remains farcically amusing. Though Aubrey Plaza’s character is initially introduced as if she is a troublemaking element of Harper’s past, she instead acts as an emotional crutch for Abby to lean on and a reflection of how messed up a situation Harper has placed her in. It doesn’t go so far as to completely deconstruct the forced re-closeting trope, but it does seriously contemplate the psychic trauma associated with keeping yourself hidden in plain sight, especially when you are no longer accustomed to doing so, culminating in a monologue from Dan Levy that I dare you not to tear up during.
Happiest Season is cute mix of holiday fluff and genuine pathos, delivered by a cast giving their all to material worthy of their talents. In some ways, it’s a little rough around the edges, and maybe it isn’t quite original enough for an audience already well-versed in the tropes and trappings of gay romantic comedy, but it’s also a deeply heartfelt film that earns its spot as a holiday staple by giving audiences a relationship to cheer for and family you want to see mend its cracks.
Happiest Season premieres on Hulu on November 25, 2020.
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