Picture Meet the Parents and The Family Stone, but a twinge funnier, a smidge more heartfelt and a whole lot gayer, and you have writer/director Clea DuVall’s new Christmas rom-com, Happiest Season.
We meet Abby (Kristen Stewart) and her girlfriend Harper (Mackenzie Davis) as they sweetly kiss under the softly falling nighttime snow and impulsively agree to go home for the holidays together. Waking up with a renewed spirit, Abby excitedly decides that she should propose to Harper on Christmas morning at her parents’ house and all will be well, right?
Not exactly. As with many “meet the parents” narratives, the person taking their partner home reveals a secret just before they arrive, jolting the other party (and audiences) into a tizzy of anxiety. Here, Harper drops the bomb that she’s actually not out to her conservative parents, and with her father’s mayoral campaign overshadowing the holidays and stressing her mother out, she just couldn’t find the “right time” to tell them. Instead, Harper has relayed to her family that Abby is her orphaned female roommate who has nowhere to spend the holidays. Abby is understandably shaken by this news, having been with Harper for a year at this point, but she musters the courage of any on-the-brink-of-proposing partner and agrees to keep up the straight charade for the duration of the trip.
As soon as the pair knock on the front door of the picturesque mansion, we’re greeted by Harper’s mother Tipper (Mary Steenburgen), an image-obsessed, backhanded-compliment-dishing housewife who’s a cringey mix of concern and condescension. Shrouded in the illusion of Nancy Meyers-level domestic excellence (the impeccable kitchen alone is worth the price of a Hulu subscription), it’s clear that Tipper desperately clings to her self-imposed identity as the ideal homemaker, mother and wife. Next to her stuffy and ambitious mayor-in-the-making husband Ted (Victor Garber), the two serve as the picture of suburban superiority. Sure, she’s eye-rollingly patronizing and, yes, he’s way more concerned about his public persona than his family’s actual well-being, but together they exude just the right amount of societal judgment, parental nosiness and old-fashioned values without coming off as impossibly abrasive.
After a few awkward exchanges referencing Abby’s tragic orphanhood (a morbidly funny running gag) and Harper’s weighty familial expectation as “the perfect girl,” we meet the rest of the intense Caldwell crew and realize that Abby is in for one bumpy ride. Led by the coy, cool-girl energy of Stewart and the conventional charm of Davis, the cast’s stellar chemistry serves as the heart of Happiest Season. The supporting ensemble shines with performances from Alison Brie as the prim, proper and supremely oppressed Sloane (Harper’s Type A ice queen older sister, who gave up a life of successful lawyerdom to raise her mixed-race twins and make “curated gift experiences”); comedian Mary Holland as the offbeat and painfully overlooked middle sister Jane; and Dan Levy as John, Abby’s gay best friend, confidant and quirky life critic.
Holland and Levy are particular standouts, serving as the unsung heroes of the film and providing the much-needed comedic breaks and emotional releases during our main characters’ most intense moments. Levy especially grounds the film with his unapologetic voice of reason — an intoxicating blend of wit, charm and radical honesty. The contrasting dynamic of Stewart’s skittish vulnerability with Levy’s unflinching candor makes their scenes deliciously worthwhile and illustrates the type of friendship chemistry I wish we could see develop over the course of a series, not a mere two hours.
Enhancing this comedic energy is Holland’s night-terror-having, household-appliance-fixing, lovable oddball, Jane. Her specific brand of strange self-mockery is not only hilarious and relatable, it’s entirely endearing. While the rest of the family comes off largely as a swarm of superficial monsters, Jane, John and Abby feel like the most genuine demonstrations of actual humanity. Even Abby’s mysterious and slightly mischievous ex Riley (Aubrey Plaza) falls surprisingly into this category. She’s sly, dressed to the nines and entirely enchanting to watch, but she never crosses over into the ruin-a-relationship-for-revenge territory (though I would’ve welcomed that messiness as well). Instead, she serves as the intriguingly chill, closeted regret from Harper’s past who’s genuinely empathetic to Abby’s plight. After all, she too knows the struggle of being Harper’s secret girlfriend and the pain that that type of concealment imparts. I’d argue that along with the long-overdue normalized queer storyline, it’s this band of interesting yet inviting characters that distinguish the film from its generic genre-mates.
Though I’m not usually one for the traditional trappings of the Christmas rom-com, I do think DuVall’s keen attention to tradition while maintaining a steady rhythm of comedy and queerness works smartly together to cement the film within the genre. Happiest Season is a near-optimal blend of serotonin-spiked holiday spirit without feeling too formulaic or overly sweet to give viewers a genre hangover.
Along with the film’s engaging characters and impressive genre-bending, perhaps one of the most refreshing aspects of the script (written by DuVall and Holland) is that it doesn’t overly stigmatize the queer experience or dramatize the pain of coming out. Instead, it deftly exposes the very real fear of rejection that Harper is struggling with — she’s afraid to lose both her girlfriend and her parents’ acceptance — and lends a sense of understanding without excusing her bad behavior or making the whole endeavor feel tragic. It portrays this paramount moment in any queer person’s life as a scary but worthwhile choice that has to be made independently and with full conviction.
As Abby understandably laments that she doesn’t want to be with a partner who isn’t ready to be her authentic self, John reminds her that Harper’s journey is singular and not reflective of her love for Abby. Though the way in which Harper constantly pushes her partner’s needs aside in order to keep up her heteronormative veneer is absolutely maddening to witness, once she finally communicates her conflict sincerely and apologetically, it becomes clear that she’s hurting as well. It reminds audiences (me, specifically) to give Harper a break, and though her inconsiderate, convoluted route from deceit to self-discovery is far from ideal, that imperfection is actually the point. Perhaps finding oneself and establishing confidence in that identity with the ones we hold nearest and dearest is the messy, complicated, invaluable struggle that we all share.
Whether it’s through the repeated attempts to hide Abby’s gay identity or Jane’s volunteering to literally make herself smaller, or the crushing portrayal of bloodthirsty competition for parental approval between Jane and Sloane, the screenplay cleverly highlights the marginalization that all of us have felt within our relationships at one time or another. In this way, Happiest Season manages to feel both specifically queer and universally relatable — a feat that feels organic, inclusive and wholly of the times.
Though the premise and subsequent resolution feel a touch too neat and tidy for my “Bah, humbug!” brain, I certainly recognize the importance of LGBTQ+ representation on screen that isn’t mired in trauma or suffering, but instead emphasizes the rare and often underseen depictions of queer joy. In keeping with the spirit of the season, I’ll happily concede that Happiest Season is a boost of buzzy, festive feelings wrapped up in a funny, earnest narrative and is exactly the antidote we need right now.
Available to stream starting Nov. 25 via Hulu