Director: Clea DuVall Starring: Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Aubrey Plaza, Dan Levy Runtime: 102 minutes
It’s always nice to get fresh blood at the holidays. Before you finish dialling 999, what I mean by that is that because we tend to listen to the same Christmas songs and watch the same Christmas movies every year once the evenings get longer, it’s always special when something new comes along to join the rotation. So when I first heard about Happiest Season, I was really looking forward to seeing if it would be one of those worthy additions. I love Kristen Stewart. I really do, I think she’s a great talent and she picks interesting, challenging projects. Sadly K Stew let me down for the second time in 2020 (looking at you Underwater!)
Happiest Season follows Abby (played by Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis), a loved-up couple who may just be on the verge of getting engaged over Christmas. Harper spontaneously invites Abby to come home with her for the holidays. This should be a dream, but the dream is dashed before they even reach her family when Harper reveals to Abby that she actually hasn’t come out to them and been accepted for who she is over the summer like she’d told Abby before. They have no idea that she is a lesbian and they also think that Abby is joining them for the holidays as her roommate who has nowhere else to go.
Like a lot of Kristen Stewart’s films, for me her acting is one of the strongest elements that Happiest Season has going for it. She has such a natural and watchable presence and she kept me onboard at times when I might not have otherwise stuck with the film.
Similarly, the supporting roles of Aubrey Plaza and Dan Levy were wonderfully acted. Plaza plays Riley, Harper’s hometown ex who gives Abby a lot of moral support because she knows what she’s going through and Levy plays John, Abby’s friend who provides comic relief and comes to try and rescue her from the situation she’s been landed in even going so far as to pretend to be Abby’s hetero ex-boyfriend.
I talk about Melodrama a lot (too much says you!) but I feel strongly about the oft-overlooked and snarkily dismissed genre, and the atmosphere, plot and cinematography of Happiest Season are all from the Melodrama handbook. The lighting used in the family home and the rich snobby parties they bring Abby along to are so warm and rich which provides a stark contrast to how emotionally fraught the characters are feeling in these settings, and the racking focus used in the scene where John looks on as Abby tells Harper she’s leaving would feel at a home in a Douglas Sirk movie. Dan Levy’s acting in that moment even though he’s not fully in focus was one of my favourite parts of the film.
The film inadvertently casts Harper in a negative light, she comes across selfish, oblivious to Abby’s feelings and at times incredibly immature. She’s understandably scared and insecure considering her family don’t approve of gay people they know such as Riley, and I think that Harper’s struggle to tell them could have been more tactfully and sensitively handled. Coming out can of course be a complicated and personal process, but to invite someone into this situation that could potentially be incredibly uncomfortable and even potentially dangerous for them as well as yourself, and only warn them when it’s too late to back out is just not the family fun Christmas antics that Happiest Season at times suggests.
At times I’m not sure what tone the film was going for, for example there’s instances where the couple nearly get caught out and it seems as though it’s played for laughs. Abby had been trying to sneak into Harper’s room but couldn’t make it, so Harper sneaks into her room and the family come along and open the door leading to some slapstick comedy as Harper struggles to stay out of sight. Maybe I’m a stickler but there’s a few physical fights between the three sisters that get played for laughs and I didn’t love it, it’s all too common in comedy and also didn’t really suit the tone of the film.
I fully appreciate that a film has a limited bandwidth to tell a story and that there are limitations. But the complete 180 that Harper’s full family does on her ‘alternative lifestyle’ as her Mam puts it earlier in the film just seems inauthentic and maybe even patronising. At first when the scene with the family having a peaceful Christmas started playing, I assumed we had maybe skipped forward a year or 2 and that they had made strides in accepting their daughter and her partner. But no, Tipper (Mary Steenburgen’s character) has immediately convinced Ted (played by Victor Garber) to come around, with no time in the film dedicated to her herself processing the news. Not only is this not so realistic, it has the potential to really upset the audience that the film should surely be made for.
Happiest Season tells a compelling story and there are some strong elements at play, however the film adds too-rosy a Christmassy filter over what is an emotionally fraught and complex situation that’s less than gracefully navigated. (2 / 5)
Happiest Season is available to rent or buy on Youtube.