Movie Review: Happiest Season
Happiest Season is about a couple who are going to visit family for Christmas. The only catch is that Harper, whose family it is, hasn't told them about her girlfriend, Abby... or that she's a lesbian in a healthy relationship with Abby. Abby is willing to go along with it with the promise that after the holidays Harper will reveal all. Nothing goes according to plan and Abby begins to question if she should be with someone who is denying a whole part of herself to her family. The film stars Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Mary Steenburgen, Victor Garber, Alison Brie, Mary Holland, Dan Levy, Burl Moseley, Aubrey Plaza, Sarayu Blue, Jake McDorman, and Ana Gasteyer. The film is written by Clea DuVall and Mary Holland with a story by and directed by Clea DuVall. The film is streaming exclusively on Hulu.
I used to be a big Christmas person. I used to like the lights and the pageantry and the movies. Though, I have soured quite a bit on the season. It's the old, "it's not you, it's me," excuse and lately I have avoided all cheer and most Christmas movies, but Happiest Season really spoke to me. It likely sounded like music to my ears because it is a gay love story, but also because it reminds me what I used to love about big ensemble Christmas comedies.
Clea DuVall and co-writer Mary Holland have really captured some lightning with this script. While most of the characters are archetypes, the over-achieving father, the controlling mother, the creepy moppets, and the black sheep, DuVall and Holland are able to bring those characters to new levels of excellence. The story is layered in ways that aren't completely apparent at first, but build into the eventual revelations. And boy are there are some great revelations. These add great depth to characters that were already wonderful, but needed the extra oomph of honesty.
I knew I would like how DuVall balanced all of these characters because she did so well in her debut, The Intervention. She can juggle storylines well and is able to make them all interweave in fabulous ways. I liked her use of space in the large house that the family's staying in and that even though Abby's room is out of the way in the basement, it's still a hub for activity because it's also the storage room. With her cinematographer John Guleserian, DuVall's created some incredible scenes that seem like chaos, but are measured and the best kind of busy.
One of my favorite sequences is when Riley and Abby go out for a drink to talk. They end up at the town's queer bar and it's lit with the rosiest red lights and it is a cosy spot packed with people. Riley and Abby have a heart to heart and Riley even gets the two drag queens doing a Christmas set to bring Abby into the act. It's sweet and homey. In contrast, there's the bar where Harper and her friends have ended up after the important dinner Abby wasn't invited to. It's spacious, harsh fluorescent, and people are clumped in groups and not experiencing something together. It's the warmth of the culture where Abby can be herself in contrast with the culture in which she's been closeted by the woman she loves.
What's really heartening about the narrative is it's not easy. It's not a black and white ideal of what a relationship can be. I like that Abby is smart enough to know that if Harper is going to code switch every time she interacts with her family, she may not be worth being with despite their feelings for each other. I also like that the resolution isn't immediate acceptance, but the start of the work toward understanding who each other are and why they've lied to one another. Happiest Season is at its best when it weighs into the real issues in the relationships these people have had together.
I also love that Dan Levy plays a radical feminist, wise gay sage. Yet, I think the MVP trophy goes to Mary Holland for her terrific performance as Jane. She absolutely steals every scene she's in with incredible wit and timing. My favorite thing about her performance, though is that while it's unhinged at times, It's not stuck completely outside of reality. She has just as much depth as the others, it's just all on the surface and you have to listen to hear it. She has this great piece in the scene where many revelations are made where she claims she has no secrets, but that she's an ally and it made me tear up because I believed every word of it and it was made as important as the other revelations by Holland's performance. Mary Holland has been stealing scenes for a while, but I hope she gets to sink her teeth into more meaty parts like this one for a long time.
Happiest Season takes the trope of the holiday movie and gives it new life and a new resonance for my cold, queer Grinch heart. I love the characters, the wit, the charm and the fantastic performances. I highly recommend you add it to your holiday rotation. It may become something I watch each year going forward to remind me that there is something really magical about the season. Snuggle up and seek this one out.