The holidays are upon us. Thanksgiving is tomorrow and that can mean only one thing: Christmas movies! Okay, it means a lot of things, but at the cinema it guarantees a heaping helping of big family blockbusters and Christmas movies. Since so many theaters are closed nationwide, the franchise offerings have been delayed. However, already over the last month, Netflix has given us Operation Christmas Drop, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey, Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square and Christmas Chronicles Part Two. Now Hulu joins the fray with Happiest Season, the only one of these I have chosen to review.
It is a formulaic “meet the parents at the holidays” romantic-comedy with a twist of sorts (which I will get to in a moment). I decided to watch it because I really like the cast. Happiest Season hits all the marks you would expect it to, in all the predictable ways. Yet the actors keep things enjoyable in the face of some awkward dialogue and a screenplay that fumbles a few significant dramatic scenes. It is largely charming and its heavier themes, while occasionally being dealt with in a clumsy manner, are certainly not discarded. This is an amusing diversion at a time when those are pretty welcome.
The twist I referred to earlier is that its central couple are lesbians. Of course, this is only a twist because this genre tends to deal with straight couples. That makes this feel slightly different, even though it really isn’t.
Harper and Abby have been dating for six months and are very much in love. Abby has no family, and thus doesn’t celebrate Christmas, so, at the last second, Harper invites her to come with her to her parent’s house for Christmas. Once they’re on their way, Harper drops the bombshell: her family thinks she’s straight, so Abby will have to pretend to be her straight roommate for five days. The usual shenanigans ensue.
What keeps Happiest Season from being a lame sitcom is its cast. Kristen Stewart is laid-back Abby, Mackenzie Davis is uptight Harper, Allison Brie is her miserable/jealous sister, Mary Holland (who cowrote the screenplay with director Clea DuVall) is the ignored sister, Mary Steenburgen and Victor Garber are their parents and Aubrey Plaza pops up as Harper’s ex. I knew little about this coming in, but seeing Stewart, Davis, Brie, Plaza and Steenburgen in the same project was more than enough of an enticement to get me to watch. While Brie’s character unfortunately means she doesn’t get much to do and Davis gets whiplashed a bit by the screenplay, comedies can be carried by the charm of the performers and that is definitely the case here.
Stewart has a natural ease that is very fitting for the role of a woman comfortable with who she is, but increasingly worried that her girlfriend may not be. I wish they had explored more of Harper and Abby’s relationship so we could get a better sense of how different Harper is with her family. Still, Stewart and Davis share several nice moments together early on that make it clear what is at stake (though Stewart does seem to have more chemistry with Plaza, relaxed and less sardonic than usual, as a sympathetic ear). Steenburgen is good as the oblivious matriarch. Holland, as the only sister comfortable in her own skin, would be the scene-stealer if her material was funnier. Regardless, she nails a few gags that would have bombed hard in the hands of someone who couldn’t get across the character’s innate sweetness. I also enjoyed Daniel Levy as Abby’s gay best-friend, despite how cliché he is.
The most interesting thing about Happiest Season (besides its cast) is that it is an old-fashioned holiday rom-com that just happens to focus on a lesbian couple. That decision is both bold and incredibly safe. It is a movie about lesbians for people not wholly on board with the idea of watching a movie about lesbians. While it is disappointing that DuVall and Holland didn’t have larger ambitions, it is still a fine formula rom-com.
To its credit, the characters do have serious conversations concerning coming out. However, Happiest Season is less about that and more about wacky family conflicts, just as the formula demands. Even so, the stuff that made its way in gives this a tad more weight than normal. It is kind of fun to see these actors lead familiar characters through all the predictable plot points.
3¼ out of 5
Kristen Stewart as Abby
Mackenzie Davis as Harper
Mary Steenburgen as Tipper
Allison Brie as Sloane
Mary Holland as Jane
Victor Garber as Ted
Aubrey Plaza as Riley
Daniel Levy as John
Directed by Clea DuVall
Screenplay by Clea DuVall and Mary Holland