When the trailer first dropped for Clea DuVall’s sophomore feature, Happiest Season, social media instantly dissolved into a sea of cooing mush. Finally, the sweet, sappy, queer-focused rom-com we’ve all been waiting for! And it happens at Christmastime, to boot! Happiest Season isn’t the goofy, laugh-a-minute caper much of its marketing material is promoting. It’s actually something a lot more interesting; a chewy, spiky, emotionally complex story that’s difficult to pin down and equally tough to shake. It will make you cry, but not for the reasons you’re expecting.
Opening with leads Abby (Kristen Stewart, looking more butch than she’s ever been allowed onscreen before without a literal buzzcut like in Underwater) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis, whose angular features are curiously hidden under frizzy, mousy brown hair) taking part in the kind of festive walking tour that only exists in nightmares, Happiest Season starts off light on its feet. The fact there’s a lesbian kiss just 10 minutes in shouldn’t be cause for celebration, and yet here we are. Still, these two are clearly in love, they have a happy life together and everything is well and good.
After inviting Abby to spend the Christmas break with her well-to-do family, Harper suddenly has cold feet en route. The scene during which the two women drive to Harper’s family home is eerily reminiscent of Get Out, only this journey ends with the car pulled over and Abby confused over her girlfriend’s sudden reluctance to acknowledge herself as such, rather than an awkward police encounter (that Davis and Allison Williams both sport heavy fringes can’t be purely coincidence). It turns out that Harper isn’t out to her parents, so Abby will have to pose as her lonely roommate.
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It’s a toxic setup for sure, but thanks to both the strength of the writing (DuVall co-wrote the sharp screenplay with Mary Holland, who also appears in a small role) and Davis’ skilled performance, Harper’s position feels more desperate than manipulative. Of course, she’s on shakier ground once the duo actually arrives at the expansive homestead and Abby is consistently either pushed aside or denigrated for not fitting in (Kathleen Felix-Hager’s stunning costume design frequently places Stewart in tailored suits and grungy knits, while Davis floats by in ultra-feminine dresses).
The situation is complicated further by the arrival of Harper’s high school boyfriend (Jake McDorman), who’s only too eager to get back with her and whom Harper, at least in Abby’s view, isn’t exactly pushing away. In a lighter film, or more accurately one with a straight couple at its heart, these moments would be played for laughs. In Happiest Season, the tension gradually rises to breaking point until a predictable third act reveal that is physically painful to watch (the word “lesbian” is delivered with pure venom, like a slur).
DuVall consistently plays with expectations of both a romantic comedy and a queer movie. Take the casting of Harper’s parents. Mary Steenburgen is a genius choice for her mother, the well-meaning but icy Tipper (Steenbugen actually looks a lot like Davis, funnily enough). The esteemed actress is typically cast as softer types, but her smile feels forced in Happiest Season — her jabs slice through the air even as she delivers them through gritted teeth. As Ted, Harper’s father who’s running for mayor, Victor Garber is his reliably oily self (try to think of the last movie when this guy was cast as a decent type). Similar, again, to Get Out and the infamous Barack Obama speech, these are the worst kind of liberal elite types: outwardly accepting but not-so-secretly biased.
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Stewart’s deadpan delivery is well-suited to this kind of awkward environment since the actress looks uncomfortable by default. Early on, when she must make up an ex-boyfriend and scrambles that he worked as a “milk… man,” it’s one of the biggest laughs of the entire movie. The humor is front-loaded in Happiest Season, but once DuVall’s intentions with the story become clear, it’s easy to see why. Vague asides to an unfortunate “lifestyle choice” and a commitment to “family, tradition and faith” hint at the unfriendly territory the couple finds themselves in, but, crucially, only one of them appears to be truly upset by it.
Happiest Season doesn’t sand down its edges to fit into a cozy template. Although there’s usually no doubting where the principle characters are going to end up in this kind of movie, DuVall keeps viewers guessing, most notably with the inclusion of Harper’s fiery ex, played by Aubrey Plaza. There’s a significant online contingent who feel the story should’ve played out differently between the two leads, but, as it stands, Riley presents not just an anchor in the queer world Abby knows so well (the duo visits a lesbian bar where Drag Race legends Jinkx Monsoon and Ben DeLaCreme perform a Christmas duet) but an insight into who Harper might really be underneath the highly-polished surface.
Even Harper’s hair gets sleeker the minute she arrives home, which jars against Abby’s messy, bottle-blonde locks. The constant juxtaposition between the woman Harper is pretending to be, or perhaps desperately wants to be if only she could force herself to be straight, and Abby’s free-wheeling, bag lady chic is just one of the many clever stylistic tics employed by DuVall and her talented, mostly female crew. The food, clothes and Christmas decorations are all very Nancy Meyers, very wish fulfillment-y, but there’s an unnatural sheen to everything too. As Harper’s older sister, Alison Brie’s hair is styled poker-straight to emphasize her death-grip on everything in her ostensibly perfect life.
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The cast is uniformly wonderful, with each new character signaling the arrival of a beloved actor, from Brie to the scene-stealing Holland, Plaza of course and Ana Gasteyer as a scheming local politico. Schitt’s Creek breakout Dan Levy nearly runs away with Happiest Season, however, as Abby’s GBF who spends much of his time on the phone to her and acts as kind of an audience surrogate, consistently encouraging Abby to stand up for herself or to simply leave. Levy’s droll delivery is welcome as always, but he shines even brighter when giving an eloquent speech about the nature of coming out that cuts incredibly close to the bone.
It is in these moments that Happiest Season transcends its holiday movie trappings to become something deeper and more meaningful. Even when Christmas-y stuff does feature, DuVall gives it a modern, quirky spin, such as when sleigh bells punctuate a late-night dash through the house like gunshots in an action movie. The songs featured throughout are pop rather than classical, emphasizing the film’s more radicalized standing, and the final ditty is by lesbian singing duo Tegan and Sara. The central message is about acceptance, rather than twisting oneself into knots to fit into some prescribed notion of “normality,” which chimes well with all these little details.
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To that end, DuVall remains non-judgmental, even when it comes to the cruel setup which, it must be noted, many queer viewers will recognize from their own lives. Harper isn’t simply a bad person, and Abby isn’t completely right in trying to force her to come out faster. Their love story is knotty and complicated, with no obvious resolution, and a certain amount of compromise is required from both women if they want to move forward together. Davis and Stewart have a relaxed chemistry, but their connection is missing an element of fire to truly convince — more snatched kisses certainly wouldn’t have gone astray. And yet, they sell the hell out of it again and again regardless.
There are plenty of wacky hijinks and laugh out loud moments, particularly early on, but DuVall is more interested in telling a realistic story than providing a queer fairy-tale, as much as that might feel necessary right now. From the chic lesbian styling (so many suits!) to the casting of out queer actors like Stewart and Levy in leading roles, the mission of the talented writer-director, a proud lesbian herself, is clear: Happiest Season may not be the cozy, easy and festive rom-com that many were expecting, but for those looking for something more challenging, it’s a vital, moving and essential watch any time of year.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.