Withholding any sort of secret never ends well; heck, trying to bury the fact this past year has been riddled with tumult and bad luck that can break a rib to hold in. Eventually, the truth has to spill, with the fear and dread attached in waiting for the right moment. Around Christmas time with all eyes looking on while innocently capturing the seasonal spirit that does sound like a worthwhile challenge. One, which director Clea DuVall (The Intervention) and her enthusiastic cast are determined to fulfill in Happiest Season, a holiday rom-com that is as self-aware of the formula it adheres to, as it is an agile beacon of on-screen LGBT representation, continuing to normalize more and more each year.
In the course of a very quick eight months (uncertain of whether the pandemic is ignored), a very normal relationship forges and builds. Harper (Mackenzie Davis) and Abby (Kristen Stewart) have had a steady relationship for some time, but nothing could ever truly prepare them for heading back home for Christmas week, an event Abby is hesitant to support, having not met any of Harper’s family just yet, and not too big of a fan of the holiday overall. None of them even knows their daughter is gay, which inadvertently complicates things much further. Nevertheless, Abby plays along, swept up in Harper’s extreme anxiety. Her dad Ted (a dignifiedly stoic Victor Garber) is looking to impress a donor for his mayoral campaign. Mom Tipper (Mary Steenburgen) is nagging her way through every detail of every function leading up to the 25th. Sisters Sloane (Alison Brie) and Jane (Mary Holland) are competitive, nosy attention seekers composed but also determined to rifle through the laundry of secrets.
Devall and Holland share screenwriter billing, a pair of minds colliding on an interesting approach to what would otherwise have been just another cookie-cutter Hallmark holiday movie struggling to reach a peak of levity. It only gets close to that comfortable spot making a cup of warm cocoa out of Parasite; the gruesomeness replaced with the presence of multiple familiar faces questioning Abby’s thought process and the possibility of an engagement ring. It’s all done with a chipper bite, never not losing sight of the moment, of where everyone is. Particularly Stewart, who has been on an eclectic roll as of late, her recent successes with Underwater and Charlie’s Angels examples of her effusive snark scoring huge on screens. Her chemistry with Davis is equal amounts innocent and sincere, her electric sass with Steenburgen firmly succinct.
It is that fear of a dramatic fallout Abby’s most privy to avoid, clouding her judgment in discovering her partner’s occasional flirtations with denial of truth. Many of Harper’s childhood friends, and exes, are of no help, among them the effortlessly snide Riley (Aubrey Plaza), and pretty-boy jock Conor (Jake McDorman). In Abby’s corner, the freethinking John (Schitt’s Creek star Dan Levy) butts in over the phone, tracking her every move (though obviously not in a weird way) to remind her of the dangers of commitment and the idea of overwhelming “heteronormativity” leaving him repulsed.
Count them as warning signs to think long and hard about just what relationship goals really mean, and whether they can be shared between both partners. DuVall is keen on giving that aspect a heart-full approach, almost refreshingly so. It’s not just about Abby’s single-girl orphan strategy causing everyone to pity down; it goes much deeper. And it needed to, setting it apart from others looking for the lovey-dovey feels without going constructive on what’s necessary to hit that territory accurately.
Stewart is no slouch on the wit, as is Davis on the anxious energy. The only minor issue presenting itself, aside from the constant battle for oxygen against a strict formula, is that the pair when together can’t be taken completely seriously. It’s a mild inconsistency where one side of the relationship weighs the other down, and then the reverse, before lifting themselves back up. Eventually, the two get their act together, DuVall and Holland reeling in the theatrics, and returning solely to their relationship and the fight brewing to stay true to themselves, to their strengths as a couple, and their very human weaknesses.
To get there is a bit muddled, due in part to the very idea that even the most self-aware Christmas-oriented film can fall prey to its strict code of ethics. Only in the third act do we see that heightened clarity in the bravery of coming out, the genuine emotion laid thick without bordering on the cartoonish. Happiest Season is a film well apt to its title, wherein happiness at a given time of year can only be successful when honesty wins, when authenticity takes a greater role. It’s just that authenticity Duvall pours out onto the page, spills over to the screen and rubs off on her talented cast. All of whom are having one delightful time responding against unwarranted hypocrisy, and that shows well. With patience packed, it will be one upbeat, joyful, astonishingly funny work of filmmaking to soothe especially the curmudgeonliest of persons at this festive time. (B-; 3/5 Horns Up!)
Happiest Season is currently streaming on Hulu; rated PG-13 for some language; 102 minutes.