dir: Clea Duvall
I have a soft spot for these kinds of Christmas-related family comedy-pseudo dramas. I also have a soft spot for grindcore and stoner rock, so I don’t think the former says any more about me than the latter does either.
In case you’re wondering, no, I fucking hate the movie Love, Actually, it’s the absolute worst.
I’m thinking more of flicks like The Family Stone, and other gentle fare, where the “dysfunctional” part of the scenario is that someone likes smoking dope, or someone won’t admit they lost their job, or someone’s upset about something that happened a year ago involving a misplaced thank you note. You know, as opposed to families where the cops have to be called routinely, or there are restraining orders and death threats involved, like the dysfunctional family I grew up in.
Happiest Season doesn’t exactly stick to a certain familiar, untaxing template, but it doesn’t exactly create a new genre out of whole cloth. It’s the kind of film that you feel like you’ve seen a thousand times before even if you’re watching it for the first time, and even if it has a gay couple as the central ones making all the fuss.
Kristen Stewart plays Abby and Mackenzie Davis plays Harper. They’re a couple. It’s Christmas, or at least Christmas is coming up. Harper loves Christmas and loves spending it with her big family. Abby lost her parents when she was a teen, and doesn’t really care to celebrate this most dismal time of the year. But she loves Harper.
For some reason. Abby plans on asking Harper to marry her. Harper doesn’t know this. But she doesn’t want Abby to be alone this Christmas, so she invites her up to whatever snow-covered one pub town her parents live in, in rural Pennsylvania.
Does hilarity ensue? Well, not entirely. All these kinds of flicks depend on a central lie at the beginning, sort of, and this one’s is that Harper is not out to her family, so Abby is just going to be introduced as her housemate. They’re just friends, and Harper encourages her family to take pity on Abby because she’s an orphan.
So Abby is pretty much thrown in the deep end. The father (Victor Garber) is meant to be a conservative ogre who treats his family like ornaments to burnish in order to promote his personal political brand so he can run for mayor of their podunk town. The mother (Mary Steenburgen), in lieu of a personality, tries to put everything on Instagram, so we are to believe everything on the surface is all that matters to her.
The eldest sister Sloane (Alison Brie) loathes Harper because…well, eldest resenting youngest is probably a thing psychologists have dropped a lot of ink and therapy advice about over the decades. And middle sister Jane (Mary Holland) is a nutjob who is completely inappropriate all the time because she felt ignored as a child.
Abby slouches her way into this family, with all the nervous and awkward energy Kristen Stewart can deliver, and pretty much always does no matter the role. She’s actually okay in this, because she puts in a dramatic performance. Most of the other actors are quirking things up so much it fucking hurts, but they’re the ones in a romantic comedy.
The surprise to me in this was that Kristen Stewart put in an okay performance, but also she’s not the villain in this flick. I’m not kidding – we lead off thinking Harper’s family is going to be filled with bigots and shitheads, and it turns out the only real monster in this flick is Harper(!)
It blew my mind to see this transpire in between the gags, pratfalls, misunderstandings and miscommunications. And I’m not the first or the last person who’s pointed this out, but there’s another character in the flick called Riley, played by the great Aubrey Plaza, and it’s through her that we grasp the full enormity of Harper’s awfulness.
And when Abby and Riley get to know each other, a lot of viewers nudge nudged and wink winked that, you know, maybe Abby and Riley would really have made a better couple? The thing is, though, even though there’s a good energy there, there’s a definite chemistry, no doubt, what they’re really united by isn’t lust, but the fact that they have both been horribly hurt by Harper.
It comes as such a surprise. Mackenzie Davis is so well liked and admired for her various roles in things as disparate as Halt and Catch Fire and the only Black Mirror episode that didn’t make people want to slit their wrists, being San Junipero, that it was natural to assume (if not horribly biased) if she was in a flick as half of a gay couple that she would be the decent, caring supportive one, and that Kristen Stewart would, I dunno, stab someone’s hydrangea. How wrong we were. Harper, my gods, what a piece of work she is.
Many names have been mentioned, ones that seem important, or relevant, but the one I’ve left out the longest is also the name of the person who walks away with the movie comfortably under their arm: Dan Levy. In a film where the central couple is a gay couple, you would think the trope of the gay best friend would have been left by the wayside, or distorted in some way. But nope, the gay main character has a sassy gay best friend who drops in for some sensationally camp insights on the patriarchy and marriage as transfer of ownership of females. Dan Levy doesn’t have to play a character significantly different from any other characters he’s played or is known for, especially David on Schitt’s Creek.
And, okay, he’s the funniest person in the entire fucking movie, there’s no question, he steals every scene he’s in. The funniest thing for me is that Abby initially trusts him to look after her menagerie of animals, and, I’m sorry sweetie, but there’s no fucking way he should be looking after anything more complex than a pet rock.
When it starts off he’s the friend Abby confides stuff in, then he’s the friend away from the drama who she’s confiding in over the phone and, inevitably, like day following night or like hangover following Thursday payday where someone thought buying a bottle of Chartreuse was a good idea (it wasn’t), he’s going to have to come to whatever town Abby is in with Harper’s shitty family to sort things out.
The virtue of the flick, and it has a few, is that it uses his character and his acting talents sensibly as the voice of reason to Abby’s fears. More importantly, it uses his wisdom in sensible ways. Initially it uses him to remind Abby that trying to unite your life with someone who refuses to come out of the closet to their family is a recipe for disaster. But then when Abby lashes out at Harper (with every justification, for my money), he also reminds Abby that she never had to have the awkward potentially relationship ending conversation with her parents about being gay, because her parents died. Harper being afraid to come out to her parents is a reasonable fear, and he can attest to that, his character saying that his father didn’t talk to him for 13 years.
That hit, and that hurt. Little else does, which is why it’s so great that he’s around. He also gets some great moments trying to hetero bro out with Abby’s high school boyfriend, trying to ask about blokey bloke stuff like lifting weights and getting cut.
Yeah. Like there aren’t gay guys that hit the gym and work on their abs.
I enjoyed the flick more than it deserved, way more than it deserved. All of Harper’s family members barely have more than one trait to them, and little of it is used to generate meaningful drama. Alison Brie who’s usually great in everything she’s in, is wasted here as a sullen and resentful sibling that has little else to do other than be sullen and resentful. She gets exactly one good line about how Paltrow and Goop are interested in her ‘curated’ gift baskets.
And that’s it. What a waste. She’s been so great in so many things, and you’re going to waste her talents as the judgey elder sister?
I guess Harper redeems things by the end. I guess they all do. It’s not masterpiece theatre, but it will do. Will it become a new annual tradition with gay couples every year, replacing the only slightly less gay It’s a Wonderful Life as a Christmas staple? Who knows? I applaud everyone involved, especially director Clea DuVall, who very carefully and very calculatedly made the kind of flick, the kind of generic, romantic boilerplate stuff that she wanted to make, with the added benefit of not scaring the horses, so to speak.
It’s okay. It’s okay for movies with gay couples as the central couple in the story to be just all right, or to even be mediocre. They’ve earned their place at the table.
7 times after all, hetero cis couples have been boring and unbelievable in romantic comedies for at least as long as cinema has been around out of 10
“Okay. You say that, but what you’re actually doing is tricking the woman you claim to love by trapping her in a box of heteronormativity, and trying to make her your property. She is not a rice cooker, or a cake plate. She’s a human being.” – yeah, but not by much - Happiest Season