Dir: Clea DuVall. Featuring: Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Daniel Levy, Victor Garber, Mary Steenburgen. 12, 102 mins.
When it comes to mainstream LGBT+ Christmas films, Happiest Season didn’t exactly have a high bar to clear. In fact, it had no bar at all. Clea DuVall’s festive romcom is the very first of its kind – and if Covid-19 hadn’t robbed it of its cinema release, its box office numbers would hopefully have ensured it wouldn’t be the last. Even if it were mediocre, it would have been groundbreaking. But in one of 2020’s rare final-act blessings, Happiest Season has turned out to be a delicate, relishable piece of Yuletide joy.
Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis) have hit the one-year milestone of their relationship, but never quite figured out what to do about the holidays. Harper’s all in; Abby, who lost her parents at 19, would rather skirt around the painful memories it dredges up. One giddy, woozy night, they make a pact. Abby will spend Christmas with Harper’s family. If that doesn’t change her mind about the whole season, they’ll never speak of it again. Halfway to her parents’ house, Harper reveals the catch: she hasn’t yet come out to her family. And because her father (Victor Garber) is running for mayor and it might risk scandal in her small, conservative hometown, she can’t do it until after Christmas. Abby, suddenly, must play the role of the single, heterosexual, tragically orphaned roommate.
Harper’s family home looks like it’s sitting inside a snowglobe – old brick on the outside, pristine cream upholstery on the inside. Everyone’s in knitwear. The town is quaint and historical. Conflict leads to resolution. It’s a conventional framework, but Happiest Season is always finding ways to casually undercut these tropes – Schitt’s Creek’s Dan Levy, as John, gets to play the breezy, advice-doling gay BFF to a gay person, not another heterosexual protagonist. Director Clea DuVall, who’s been something of a lesbian icon since her role in 1999’s But I'm a Cheerleader, alongside her co-writer Mary Holland, also shades in the details with a richness that feels both intimate and familiar.
Their characters are absurd, but never without a sense of humanity. Harper’s sister Jane (Holland) is an aspiring fantasy novelist often described as “too much”, while her other sister Sloane (Alison Brie) is defined by poker-straight hair, ever-imploding facial expressions, and a biting passive-aggressiveness. She’s married to Eric (Burl Moseley), whose GAP ad-ready cheeriness is somehow more disconcerting than the “murder twins” vibe given off by their children, Magnus and Matilda (Anis and Asiyih N'Dobe). The family matriarch, Tipper (Mary Steenburgen), stands off to the side, snapping photos on an iPad. “Your mother’s going viral!” she says, with all sincerity. Some of the film’s best, most nerve-clenching awkward jokes come from momentary expressions – a withheld compliment, a smile melting into a death stare.
DuVall and Holland also resist ever making Harper and Abby’s relationship too easy to solve or to preserve. At home, Harper starts to act differently, stuck in a semi-robotic performance of heterosexuality. Abby feels isolated by it, no longer able to recognise the woman she loves. It’s heartbreaking to watch a couple disintegrate – especially when they seem, at first, so in sync with each other, all easy smiles and tender embraces. When Harper admits she feels suffocated and needs some space, you can almost hear the quiet thud of Abby’s stomach dropping.
The film is carefully apolitical – Harper’s parents are bigoted strictly in the sense that they’re eager to conform. There’s no personal ideology there. But it’s a convenient smoothing of reality that lets the film focus solely on what’s emotionally at stake between its central couple – Davis with her doe-eyed vulnerability, Stewart with that raggedy, honest charm. It’s the performances, each funny and grounded in their own way, that make Happiest Season feel like such a gift.