Part-Screwball, Part-Schmaltz, ‘Happiest Season’ Puts the ‘LGBTQ’ Back in Christmas
LGBTQ representation in mainstream holiday films has been sadly lacking. The first time I recall seeing a gay character in a Christmas movie was Jodie Foster’s 1995 release Home for the Holidays, in a secondary role of course. A quarter of a century later — yes, you read that correctly — we now have a few options, thanks to Hallmark’s recent LGBTQ Christmas film The Christmas House, and now Clea DuVall’s sophomore feature film Happiest Season.
“It’s not just a movie that LGBTQ people are going to relate to and connect with,” DuVall has said. “It really is a story that I think has empathy for all of its characters. When someone comes out, it’s not even necessarily just about the person’s coming-out. It’s like a tree; its branches splinter off and it becomes a part of other people’s journey too. Which is definitely not a perspective I had until I was much older.
“But it’s also just anybody who has a family, anybody who’s ever gone home for the holidays, anybody who’s gone home with someone else for the holidays. It’s the human experience of going home with someone or going home to be with your family at any time.”
For the film Happiest Season, the family is the Caldwells, and the someone going to meet them is Abby (Kristen Stewart), who’s been secretly planning to propose to Harper Caldwell (Mackenzie Davis) before learning, on their drive to the family house, that her girlfriend has not come out to her conservative parents. DuVall’s script, co-written with Mary Holland, is part screwball comedy, part coming-out drama, part Hallmark schmaltz, and 100% in love with all of those items.
DuVall adores a boisterous cast. Both here and in her debut The Intervention she populates the screen with first-rate actors and lets them get busy with the messiness of life. There’s too much going on in nearly every scene, but the film moves quickly. If one thing doesn’t work, not to worry; something else will come along that’s just right (nearly every moment that involves Aubrey Plaza as Harper’s ex, for example).
Stewart and Davis have an easy chemistry on-screen. You don’t have to know anything about their respective backgrounds to feel the deep connection they share. Dan Levy is onboard as Abby’s BFF, John, and the voice of reason for more progressive-leaning viewers; it’s a performance slightly less stylized than his Emmy-winning work as David Rose on Schitt’s Creek, though in the same general arena.
Victor Garber and Mary Steenburgen are always lovely to see, he playing against type as an uptight potential mayoral candidate and she, neurotic and lyrical as ever, the overburdened wife striving to keep outward appearances picture perfect. Harper’s sisters Sloane and Jane are played, respectively, by Alison Brie (of Glow fame) and Mary Holland (whom, 90 credits to her name, I’ve never seen before). Brie is masterful with impetuous characters; we may hate her Sloane at times, but the actress gives her enough corners that we understand the underlying dynamic between these two sisters who have always been pitted as competitors by her parents. The standoff between the two — at the height of a holiday party with consequences for their father’s mayoral bid — is the emotional (and comedic) highpoint of the film. It’s both ludicrous and satisfying.
But the standout here is Holland. Jane, the reliable little sister, is overlooked by everyone in the household (and most of the guests). She might come across at first as the annoying younger sibling fighting for scraps of attention, but she’s not waiting for anyone’s approval of her passions or choices. (She’s an amateur painter and budding novelist who has been working out her sci-fi young adult fantasy novel for ages.) Her eccentricities are charming and — more importantly — funny. When she throws herself into the middle of her older sisters’ grudge match, she’s not advocating to be the alpha dog, she just wants to be included. And that vulnerability is comic and unexpectedly touching.
I wish the film were better than it is. It’s thoroughly enjoyable. As an LGBTQ Christmas film, its aims for LGBTQ representation are fulfilled. I chuckled along in appreciation for nearly all of its 102-minute running time. Yet there was nothing at stake in the conflict between Abby and Harper, and Harper and her family, that isn’t easily glossed over for a happy ending that, while exactly what one wants and expects from a holiday rom-com, doesn’t feel deserved. Luckily, DuVall and Mary Holland — probably suspecting this — give a great little speech about the coming-out process that John delivers to Abby, which sets the scene for her change of heart.
In that moment, DuVall gives us the greatest holiday gift of all: Dan Levy as the gay Yoda we’ve all been waiting for.
Clea DuVall’s LGBTQ Christmas film Happiest Season premieres Wednesday, Nov. 25, on Hulu.
Photos courtesy of Hulu