Happiest Season (2020)

“I’m just not a huge Christmas person.”

Cute and passionate and progressive. Dramatic and perceptive and just a wee bit political. Happiest Season packs in all of the standard holiday comedy clichés and then some, filtering it all through a romantic pair of leads the likes of which we have not seen before. This movie is so familiar, so basic and routine, and yet it resonates deeply because the queer folks doing the loving and the living rarely ever get to take center stage. Now is their time, and although I thought the storytelling could’ve been more refined, there’s no denying the exceptional representation, with the two protagonists balancing each other out and making for a film that’s comfortable with changing the tides of tradition for the greater good. It’s a loving and learned movie in so many ways.

Too many films waste their initial credits, lazily inserting stock shots and empty headed footage with no connection. Happiest Season is no such picture. From the get go, the movie shows its personality by optimizing the opening images to cycle us through a panel of love story portraits in seconds. The droll and dry Abby (Kristen Stewart) meets the effervescent Harper (Mackenzie Davis), they fall in love, and eventually move in together. They’re happy, and by way of a brilliant segue, Harper asks Abby to come home for the holidays on a whim. Abby hates celebrating because she’s so used to being on her own, and she only obliges to satisfy her partner. Minutes before pulling into the driveway though, Harper unfairly announces that she’s still in the closet. It’s like watching a tandem chess match featuring two teammates moving at two different speeds, all while squaring off against conservative opponents. Let the games begin.

The cleverness and the innate comedy of Happiest Season come from the fact that we the viewers are allowed in on the big secret, and we get to watch the ancillary characters discover the truths we already know. Harper’s suspicious sister Sloane (Alison Brie) is a perfect personification of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop brand, and the baby of the family Jane (Mary Holland) just wants to belong while she pens her fantasy novel. Mom (Mary Steenburgen) obsesses about family portraits and outside perceptions, meanwhile the Dad (Victor Garber) languishes over his potential mayoral campaign. Harper is conflicted and confused, and it doesn’t help that she comes across her first boyfriend Connor (Jake McDorman) and her first love Riley (Aubrey Plaza) all in one restaurant. Happiest Season lacks subtlety in that way, but it’s never missing authenticity. Even the forced moments are rich and earned.

Happiest Season doesn’t exactly revolutionize the standard holiday rom-com as much as it does slowly and steadily evolve the standard format and formula. It’s refreshing to see such a common story told from such a new perspective, and as such it seems almost unfair to critique a film’s structure for being so familiar when its leading ladies are literally so radical. Writer/director Clea DuVall has painted a personal portrait of her own existence, and while it feels like a minor riff of a more well rounded picture like The Family Stone, there’s no denying that Happiest Season hits the big high notes when necessary. Sure, it’s a familiar tune. But I’m not quite sure I’ve heard this carol sung this way before. That’s saying something.

“Everybody’s story is different. There’s your version and my version and everything in between.”

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

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