Happiest Season, however, has its Christmas cake and eats it too. Actor Clea DuVall’s second film as director retains all the hyperbolic pleasures of an OTT festive Hollywood film, but adds an inclusive twist – the central romance being between two lesbian women.
Not that the film hammers home that point. At the start, Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis) are treated as a normal, loving couple, surrounded in clusters of Christmas movie clichés. The loud decorations, the inflatable snowmen, the Santa statues, the trees, the tinsel… You can’t help but relate to Abby’s disdain for the holiday season and loathe Harper’s sweet enthusiasm for it.
As you settle into these characters, they’re adorable to watch. The primary focus is on Abby, who plans to propose to Harper over the holidays. Her gay best friend John (played by Dan Levy from Schitt’s Creek) rallies against the very notion of marriage, saying she’s ‘trapping Harper in a box of heteronormativity’. Levy bursts with hilarious energy in the role, which intriguingly subverts what's usually a supportive stock character in rom-coms.
The film really kicks off when Abby decides to spend Christmas with Harper’s family. But there’s a devastating catch: Harper hasn’t come out to them yet. And so, not only do they have to pretend they’re not together, they also can’t disclose that they’re gay.
It’s easy to see why. The family live in a massive mansion, of the kind that only exists in Hollywood Christmas movies, and they’re fiercely motivated by conservative values. The father (Victor Garber) is running for mayor and preaches the awkward, right-wing tenets of ‘family, tradition and faith’, which his family can’t stray from. But, happily, they’re not Trumpian stereotypes and don’t uphold a MAGA atmosphere.
The brilliant Alison Brie (GLOW) enters the mix, playing the passive-aggressive sister Sloane. The character makes wicker baskets with her husband, and has twin kids who wouldn’t look out of place in The Shining.
Abby’s treated as an outsider, her orphanhood cited at every opportunity like she’s some poor charity case. As a result, she shrivels into her charming awkwardness. You ache for her. John’s words about that trap of heteronormativity haunt every step she takes: a source of comedy most of the time, but one that soon causes her great emotional distress.
Stewart is perfect at balancing both as Harper continues to hide vital parts of her past, denying who she really is. This becomes infuriating, especially when Harper starts going out at night with her ex-boyfriend. But the reasons soon become clear, evoking those pains of coming out, of daring to be oneself in a rigid family structure.
Yes, it’s cheesy, but the film succeeds in wrapping you up and making you cry – in a way that’s more genuine than most examples in the genre. It peddles the regular themes of love, family, acceptance and togetherness, but the inclusion of struggling gay characters gives it grounding. Considering this year’s Christmas will be different to most, Happiest Season provides some much-needed warmth against the cold.
Happiest Season will be available to rent or buy on Amazon and other VOD platforms on Thursday 26 November
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26 Nov 20 – 26 Nov 21, ON DIGITAL
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