There’s often a very strict formula that Christmas-set films adhere to. From Hallmark to Lifetime, Netflix to theatrical releases, the “happiest season” is one that is usually presented with slanted family dynamics, a misunderstanding of sorts, a high-profile disaster, and, ultimately, a lot of love and acceptance. Clea DuVall’s Happiest Season fits this mould to a tee, it’s just that she manages to put her own stamp on it by making its central couple gay.
DuVall, primarily known for her acting work in such films as Girl, Interrupted, The Faculty, and The Grudge, seems all too aware that she needs to cater to a mass audience, whilst at the same time affording the opportunity to present queer characters in the most natural of ways. It certainly helps that at the core of the film are two relatable characters in Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis), a very-much-in-love couple who aren’t pandering to the stereotypes that a lot of other films would present them as.
It doesn’t take us long to learn that Abby isn’t the most enthused about the holiday season, so when the much more exuberant Harper asks her to come home with her for Christmas there’s a slight surprise in that Abby agrees; it also doesn’t help that Harper isn’t out to her family. This nugget of useful information is sprung on Abby as they near Harper’s childhood home, and any chance Abby had at asking Harper’s father, Ted (Victor Garber), for his blessing before her hopeful proposal has been rightly quashed.
Ted being in the middle of a mayoral campaign, and Harper’s mother, Tipper (Mary Steenburgen), settling for nothing less than perfection in her bid to keep up appearances has only added to Harper’s decade-long struggle in revealing her true self to them, and forcing Abby back into the closet for the weekend – Harper’s reason for bringing her along is that she’s her sad, orphaned roommate – only adds to the agony as Abby starts to question if Harper’s inability to live freely to her family will remain a constant fixture.
As is tradition with holiday-set features, Happiest Season ensembles an impressive array of talent to partake in the eventual melodrama of it all. Next to the likeable awkwardness of Stewart and the reserved Davis, Alison Brie and Aubrey Plaza do fine work as, respectively, Harper’s hyper-competitive sister Sloane and her high-school ex, Riley, who recognises her own struggles through Abby and becomes an unlikely ally; the sequences involving Stewart and Plaza are some of the film’s most natural, with the two actresses playing off each other so wonderfully that you can’t help but almost root for their characters to follow through on the bond they so clearly have.
If there’s anybody that walks away with Happiest Season though it’s Dan Levy and Mary Holland. Levy, essentially just rebooting his Schitt’s Creek character (just with less dramatics and THAT wardrobe) provides the right balance of emotional and comedic support as John, Abby’s best friend, as does the delightful Holland (also serving as the film’s co-writer alongside DuVall) as Harper and Sloane’s oddball sister Jane who wants for nothing more than to just be included in whatever activity her family is involved in. The rather emotionally-charged climax of the film allows both Levy and Holland to stretch their characters beyond being comic relief, the two providing defining speeches that speaks to the importance of inclusivity and acceptance without knocking the issue too hard on the audience’s heads.
DuVall’s injection of community importance and the internal struggle of revealing one’s own sexual identity in a fluffy mainstream comedy allows queer cinema to be propelled forward in a manner that hasn’t always been easily afforded. Though there’s still a schmaltz to Happiest Season that softens any of the edge a story like this could have – the aesthetics, the pop-heavy soundtrack, the expected narrative – its healthy balance of conventional mentality and community respect should see it as both a staple holiday title and the hopeful start of a new wave of inclusive storytelling.
Happiest Season is screening in Australian cinemas now. It’s available to stream internationally on Hulu.