What’s new, readers? Oh, democracy. It’s a pleasure getting back together with you, old buddy. This is my first post after President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris were sworn into office on January 20, so I’d like to take a moment to express my immense appreciation and relief for this new period of our country. After four years of Troompa Loompa making countless attempts to demolish American democracy, we’re finally expunging his lies, incompetence, hatred, misinformation, and division, and beginning to reinstate the pillars of truth, accuracy, good will, science, and, as the catchword went in Biden’s inauguration address, unity. Of course, it is daunting to consider the crises he’s inheriting from the Dictator Tot administration, so we can’t get complacent. I’m sending my prayers and best wishes to the President and the Vice President as they lead us into the next chapter of national healing.
Now, I know it’s a little late to do this, but I’m going to review Happiest Season, the queer Christmas romcom that Hulu began streaming on November 25th, 2020. Directed by Clea DuVall and co-written by her and Mary Holland (who is also a member of the cast and performs with the Wild Horses improv troupe), it follows Abby Holland (Kristen Stewart) and Harper Caldwell (Mackenzie Davis) as they stay with the Caldwells over the holidays. However, Abby learns on the drive over that her girlfriend lied about coming out to her conservative parents, meaning the two of them will have to pretend to be straight for the whole trip. Sony originally prepared this for a theatrical release, but COVID forced them to drop it on Hulu. While there was another queer movie called the Christmas Setup on Lifetime, I don’t think we’ve ever had a queer Christmas movies backed by a major studio, so it would have been nice to see it grace the big screen, even with its problematic baggage. It’s a record-breaker for Hulu, reaching the most viewers for an original movie on the platform and bringing in more new subscribers than any prior title. On a side note, it was disturbing to watch everyone go maskless in this; it gets more scary when you know there was a COVID breakout on set when it was shot back in February, with Stewart being one of the people who got sick.
Let me preface this by saying that I identify as straight and cisgender, which likely colored my initially finding the romcom to be pretty charming despite of its various flaws. There’s also the aspect of it being notable for being a mainstream queer romcom, something we don’t get much of aside from Imagine Me & You,But I’m a Cheerleader (the last one which DuVall co-starred in with Natasha Lyonne), and Love, Simon. On top of that, it was promoted as a lighthearted story that can be an alternative to the trauma porn that fills LGBTQ+ film canon, including Brokeback Mountain (I read the Annie Proulx short story for the first time last month, and holy crap, it devastated me even more than the movie it was adapted into), Call Me by Your Name, Boys Don’t Cry, and Blue Is the Warmest Color. While I’m not knocking those movies, it is important to present queer narratives that are happy and loving to offset the narratives that are filled with tragedy, death, and heartbreak. Taking all that into account, I wanted to give Happiest Season the benefit of the doubt and appreciate its place in queer media, the streaming records it shattered, and DuVall taking inspiration from experiences with her own family to turn it into a semi-autobiographical story.
As I continued to digest it, though, I had to come to terms with its deep toxicity and overt whiteness. Now, if you love it, that’s okay. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, particularly in the case of a movie as divisive as this one. However, the controversial and uncomfortable elements that have led some viewers to dub this “lesbian Get Out” do need to be acknowledged at the very least, no matter how much you like it.
Without getting into deep spoilers (those will be saved for the spoilery space below), I’ll say this movie seems to aim for two objectives: conforming to romcom tropes and targeting itself towards heterosexual audiences. It succeeds on both of those goals, but to the detriment of its “love story”—well, as much as a love story it can be when a romantic partner is a constant output of toxic behavior. The partner in question, Harper, is difficult to root for from the get-go because of how selfish, inattentive, and callous she is towards Abby for the entire plot. Even before the trip, they’re looking at all the Christmas lights in the neighborhood in the opening scene, during which Abby talks about hating Christmas and Harper responds by pushing her to love the holidays, which leads up to Harper forcing her girlfriend to climb up on the rooftop of a house and Abby falling off said roof. This entire scene describes their relationship for the rest of the movie: Abby objects to or expresses discomfort with a specific activity, Harper ignores her and pushes her to do said activity, Abby bears the brunt of her girlfriend’s abuse, rinse and repeat. This is the type of romcom which passes along the harmful message that your partner can treat you like crap as long as they express their love for you in the end, and it’s all the more harmful in a queer story.
Again, I’m straight and cis, so I apologize if what I’m about to say in regard to the experience of coming out is misinformed. The way I see it is that every queer person, including Harper, has a right to stay in the closet, and forcing them out of it is an atrocious thing to do. What we see in Happiest Season, though, is Harper not only being closeted but also repeatedly neglecting Abby, gaslighting her, and forcing her to conceal her own sexuality during the trip. It’s one thing to choose to be closeted, but it’s another thing entirely when someone else—your partner, no less—removes your agency and shoves you in that cramped space without a second thought for your well-being. You know how there are some movies that feel as if they purposely want you to hate one of their main characters, even when it isn’t conducive to the story? That’s what Happiest Season does with Harper.
The script falls prey to the trope of romcoms kicking things off with the handy plot device of miscommunication. The only reason they even go on this trip is because Harper lied about coming out to her parents and fails to tell her girlfriend the truth until they’re already on the way there. Abby could have ended this trip right there and then and called for the thousand-dollar Uber, which would have been completely worth it (Harper can foot the bill, she owes Abby that much). But Abby goes along with the charade instead, because that’s how much the plot needs her to be the overly forgiving partner who puts up with Harper’s emotional manipulation. Why would Harper even invite her girlfriend to stay with her conservative parents in the first place? The answer: Plot Contrivance Syndrome.
As frustrating as I found the romance itself, I did find most of the cast to be delightful. It’s pleasantly surprising to watch Stewart play off Abby so appealingly, inasmuch as I haven’t seen a movie of hers in almost a decade and a half. FYI, the movie I’m talking about is Twilight, which I had to endure because I was down with the flu at the time and my mom decided the best way to pick me up was by watching a laughably idiotic and twisted romance blossom between an extremely clumsy human teenager and a century-old vampire who, thanks to what I’ve heard about Midnight Sun, couldn’t stop devising ways to kill her and drink her sweet, sweet blood. And I’m no fashion plate, but I really dug Abby’s wardrobe, including one getup involving this snazzy gray coat and a thin tie draped around her neck. As for Harper, maybe it’s because I can’t stand her abusive and narcissistic character, but Davis, whom you may have seen in the “San Junipero” episode of Black Mirror with Gugu Mbatha-Raw or Terminator: Dark Fate, doesn’t feel like a good fit for this role. She gives off too much of a cold and aloof air that eliminates virtually all the chemistry between herself and Stewart.
The ensemble also includes the precious ball of hilarity and charm that is Dan Levy as John, Abby’s gay literary agent friend; Mary Steenburgen, who played another Christmas comedy mom eighteen years ago in Elf, as Harper’s mother Tipper, who incessantly doles out double-edged remarks and snaps photos for Instagram; gay icon Victor Garber as Ted, the father who is in the middle of campaigning for mayor and striving alongside Tipper to perform the image of a picture-perfect family; Alison Brie as Harper’s self-righteous sister Sloane; Holland as Jane, the quirky middle sister with fantasy author aspirations; the inexhaustibly magnificent Aubrey Plaza as Harper’s high school ex-girlfriend Riley; and Ana Gasteyer in a cameo as a prospective donor for Ted’s campaign.
This is the type of romcom that leans hard into its broad comedy. Sometimes it works, such as a fish bit involving John that thrives on Levy’s charm injecting it with just enough silliness, but not so much that it becomes painfully hammy. Then there are other gags that fall flat, or at worst, make me cringe, such as the family perpetually dismissing and ostracizing the socially awkward Jane. Don’t get me wrong, I think the character of Jane and the actor are both endearing, but it made me deeply uncomfortable to watch a neuroatypical-coded character endure rejection and taunts from her WASPy family over and over. Those kind of cheap jokes belong not in a 2020 movie, but in 2000s-era cinema and the category of humor that Todd Phillips defended when he whined about “woke culture” ruining comedy.
On top of the movie’s misguided queer rep, it doesn’t make an effort to expand its narrative beyond the horizons of white wealth and privilege. All we get is the token black guy, Sloane’s husband Eric (Burl Moseley), and their kids, who are creepy as hell and would probably love to hang out with the twins from The Shining. A gag involving the black kids shoplifting only perpetuates the tokenization and racism further. Though Plaza identifies as half-Puerto Rican, I’m fairly certain it’s the intention of Happiest Season to pass off Riley as white. This story could have integrated intersectionality by, for example, casting a nonwhite actor in the role of Abby or featuring a transgender character played by a transgender actor. Instead, this is a blatantly white story that encourages Harper to back her conservative father’s political campaign (he’s most likely a Republican, although his party is never explicitly stated) and urges the audience to cheer for him to win as well—a peculiar sentiment which adds to my suspicion that this movie was created to satisfy viewers who fall into the straight, cis, and white demographics.
I realize I’ve spent the majority of this review criticizing the movie, and I want to make it clear that I’m doing this because I had high expectations for a queer Christmas romcom directed and co-written by a lesbian icon. Let me reiterate my earlier point: we desperately need a greater amount of happy LGBTQ+ narratives. Not only that, but we need more of them promoted on the same popular scale as Love, Simon. So many stories out there in mainstream media slather the experiences of coming out and queerness with misery and bereavement, and they tend to be geared towards straight and cis audiences who are willing to accept the message that queer people suffer from cruelty and tragedy if we don’t treat them kindly. The overabundance of these depressing stories have a negative impact on the LGBTQ+ community as a whole, especially the youth who are in the middle of figuring out their identities in a primarily heteronormative society. Anyone who says those stories don’t matter because they’re fictional is wrong. They do matter, and that’s why they need to be balanced out by heartwarming, wholesome, and positive narratives that portray queer characters who feel real and represent all races, genders, and orientations; narratives that are made by queer filmmakers and marketed toward queer audiences on a widespread scope; and narratives that promote casual queer rep and avoid using outings as a plot crutch. This is why I tried to love Happiest Season in all its Christmas cheer, but it ends up being little more than Grimmest Season.
Nevertheless, I recommend you check this out at least once. The heavy servings of toxicity and whiteness detract from what had the wherewithal to be a fun and touching romcom, but it’s one of the few queer offerings that millions of viewers can easily watch, it includes some genuinely funny moments, and it’s the sort of polarizing flick that you could rewatch around the holidays as long as its drawbacks don’t infuriate you. I just wish it could have realized its full potential.
Read onward if you want my spoilery thoughts on Happiest Season. All my love and prayers go to you, readers. Stay healthy and stay strong.
Windup score: 42/100
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
As I already said, there’s nothing about Abby and Harper’s relationship that screams how destined they are to be together. So why didn’t this movie conclude the way a large portion of the audience wanted it to and have Abby end up with Riley? The two of them exude nothing but chemistry together, especially when they’re out having a jovial time at the bar and singing along with the drag queens, and Riley is such a compassionate and grounded person who effortlessly connects with Abby in every scene they share. Plaza needs a big hand for delivering an understated performance that enhances the irresistibility of her character and counters the wacky gags strewn throughout the rest of the plot.
Compare that to the neglect and coolness comprising almost every interaction between Abby and Harper. This is clarified by the transition from the drag show, where Abby and Riley are riding the same rhythm and obviously meant to be together, to a bar called Fratty’s (a horrible and yet perfect name for such an establishment), where Abby gets no TLC from Harper and has to stand aside and watch her socialize with all her friends to whom she hasn’t come out. It grows to the point where Abby tells Harper she’s going to leave and Harper, instead of being a considerate partner by talking with Abby and apologizing for being an unsupportive and self-centered jerkass, just lets her go so she can keep chatting with her ex-boyfriend Connor (Jake McDorman, who Disney+ subscribers may know for recently playing Alan Shepard in the series adaptation of The Right Stuff). Even more aggravating is the fact that Abby texts her, “I love you,” after coming home, and then Harper, who gets home a few hours after midnight, simply texts back, “Home safe. Night.” The absence of “I love you” in this private setting is a massive red flag, and it makes me curious as to whether this specific detail is a screenwriting oversight on the part of DuVall and Holland or if it’s a deliberate decision to feed into the distance between the romantic leads. I honestly can’t tell, since the script feels remarkably oblivious to the unpleasant qualities of Harper’s character as it makes numerous attempts to portray her in a sympathetic light that’s dissonant with her emotional maltreatment.
Let’s not forget to mention how cruel it was for Harper to out Riley to their high school and frame her as a weirdo who nursed an obsessive crush on Harper. Sure, teenagers are fully capable of doing some of the most insensitive and idiotic things, but outing someone like that is a brutal action that violates the victim and can turn their environment into one of hostility and hatred, depending on whether or not the people who surround them are homophobic. Maybe Harper could be forgiven if we’d seen her have a close friendship with Riley as a result of Harper patching things up over the years and receiving forgiveness from Riley. Unfortunately, Harper clearly hasn’t learned from her mistake, as evidenced by her mistreatment of Abby, and it seems that she and Riley only see each other around the holidays. This is a huge indication that Riley knows Harper hasn’t evolved from the asshole she was in high school.
Sloane outing Harper at the Caldwells’ Christmas party is a stunningly vicious act of violation that could have been handled in a powerful and sensitive manner if Happiest Season was willing to break free of its romcom packaging. However, this becomes one of the many scenes where it satiates its appetite for tonally erratic slapstick, devolving into a tussle between Harper and Sloane that ends with Jane’s painting (which she put a hundred hours into) getting ruined. The movie doesn’t even treat Harper’s outing with the weight it deserves, because as soon as Harper admits she’s gay, Sloane rides her coattails and complains about her divorce, even though she has absolutely no right to speak up after breaching her sister’s privacy. This is a beat that diminishes Harper’s coming out story, and one of several beats that confirms how much this movie is designed to captivate straight audiences. Let me make it clear that nobody deserves to be outed the way Harper was, no matter how much of a piece of shit they are. Harper has every right to cut Sloane out of her life, though that’s not at all what happens in the end. It’s thoroughly frustrating to see such an ignorant and smug egomaniac like Sloane escape the harsh reprimand that the movie obviously isn’t willing to give her so it can maintain a superficially upbeat mood.
The monologue that John gives to Abby after they leave the party is meant to convey the theme that the story has been building up to. I do appreciate how this hits me in the heart as John compares his father kicking him out of the house when he came out and spurning him ever since to the bountiful love and acceptance with which Abby’s parents showered her. He goes on to point out that there’s also everything in between those two experiences, everyone in the LGBTQ+ community has different experiences, and it all boils down to that moment of anxiety and dread right before you come out, because you know your life will never be the same after that moment, whether the outcome is good or bad. The message itself is a moving one, but some of its effectiveness is diluted by how it’s woven into Harper’s arc. As I already said, she can stay in the closet for as long as she desires, but she can’t use that as an excuse to hurt Abby and Riley. Oh, and she also shouldn’t have set this chaos into motion by asking her girlfriend to meet her family in the first place.
The movie doesn’t even execute the grand gesture correctly. All Harper does is follow Abby to the gas station with the help of John’s tracker (if you think about it, his tracker shtick is pretty creepy). I would have preferred seeing her put some effort into this—a huge and complex setup of Christmas lights spelling out her love for Abby, a Christmas-themed scavenger hunt, a special Christmas gift, anything to compensate for the shenanigans Abby had to tolerate on the trip (for God’s sake, she, in a very on-the-nose gag, got stuck in a closet the night she sneaked over to Harper’s room!). The alternative ending is Abby breaking up with Harper for good and dating Riley, something I would have greatly enjoyed.
While it’s unrealistic for Jane to have published her fantasy book, The Shadow Dreamers, so quickly once the movie jumps a year ahead, I still can’t help but love this ending for her arc. It’s not stated explicitly, but it seems like John, a literary agent, probably signed her on after meeting her the previous Christmas. Ted also won his mayoral election (yay for Republicans) and Abby and Harper are engaged (yay for toxic relationships). “Make You Mine This Season” by Tegan and Sara, a perfect musical fit for the movie, accompanies the ending. It’s a definite holiday jam, and I very much wish the soundtrack featured more of their work. To this day, I still find it funny to remember they dropped the “Everything Is Awesome” track we couldn’t get out of our heads back when The Lego Movie released in 2014.
In a December 2020 Variety piece, DuVall said, “I would love to do a sequel. I mean, I have a couple of ideas. We all had such a great time making the movie that we were talking about it then. But it was also just like, who knew if anybody would care about the movie or not? So I definitely am more than open to it.” Yes, I’m actually open to it as well. Though I wish the movie made some different choices, I’d be interested to see what would unfold in a sequel that doesn’t have to restrain itself to the coming-out story. Abby and Harper getting married, their becoming parents, or the plot featuring Riley as the protagonist are the most obvious ideas to me. Since DuVall makes an appearance as Riley’s girlfriend in that credits photo, it’s nice to think we could see her in the sequel, too.
So, that’s Happiest Season, a movie that could have been exceptional with a few revisions to the script, but ended up being made for straight, white, and conservative viewers to feel good about themselves. In spite of all that, I’ll keep my ears open for DuVall’s next directorial project. If it’s a follow-up to Happiest Season, I hope it can do a better job delivering on its promises.