There’s a touching speech towards the end of Happiest Season, beautifully delivered by multiple Emmy-winner Dan Levy revitalising the gay best friend role, that eloquently makes the point that when it comes to coming out there’s no one-size-fits-all experience. It’s typical of Clea DuVall and Mary Holland’s smart, funny, heartwarming and unsentimental screenplay which goes a little deeper than your average festive rom com. And refreshingly for a mainstream coming out story it doesn’t involve an angsty teenager but instead an anxious adult, Harper (Mackenzie Davis), who doesn’t want to disappoint her conservative parents, whose admiration isn’t as unconditional as it ought to be. Harper has again decided that this Christmas won’t be a good time to upset the candy cane cart given that her father Ted (Victor Garber) is running for mayor in his picturesque small town outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He’s trying to secure the financial support of a local wealthy businesswoman (Ana Gasteyer), running on a platform of faith and traditional family values, which his devoted wife Tipper (a fantastic Mary Steenburgen) is eager to convey via their Instagram account.
Carried away by the romance of the city’s twinkling street decorations, Harper makes the mistake of asking her longterm girlfriend Abby (Kristen Stewart) home for the holidays to meet her parents for the first time. Abby tends to be rather Grinchy as December 25th rolls around, and with good reason, she associates Christmas with the absence of her parents who passed away when she was nineteen, so Harper is a little thrown when Abby accepts the invitation but has to go along with the plan. As Abby confides in her aforementioned gay best friend John, she’s agreed to go along because she sees it as the perfect opportunity to pop the question, and even plans to ask Harper’s father for his approval. Once on the road, and too far form home to turn around, Harper finally admits that she hasn’t come out to her family and Abby will have to head back into the closet (literally in one hilarious sequence) and play the straight roommate role for five days, thus heightening all of the tensions of the season. It’s the kind of awkward set up ripe for disaster that’s likely to make many of us grateful that we’ll be spending the holidays at a safe Zooming distance our loved ones this year. Whether it’s not mentioning that you’re queer, or perhaps trying not to bring up who your folks voted for earlier this month, it’s the kind of situation that we can all identify with to some degree. Abby starts to see an uglier side to Harper as she attempts to please her folks, while vying for their attention and getting drawn into old patterns of behaviour with her two sisters, the frequently sidelined Jane (a wonderful Mary Holland) and the highly strung, appearances-obsessed Sloane (an intense and reliably funny Alison Brie).
As Abby finds herself pushed out by the family and spending time alone she bonds with Harper’s former school friend Riley (a captivating Aubrey Plaza). In fact these two have such great chemistry that at times I wanted Abby to call the whole thing off with Harper and head into the sapphic sunset with Riley. There’s also a great singalong scene with them both featuring a fairly lowkey but delightful appearance by RuPaul’s Drag Race legends BenDeLaCreme and Jinkx Monsoon set in the town’s gay bar. But fortunately Stewart and Davis, despite Harper’s flaws, give us a couple we care about and want to see smooch under the mistletoe. The film’s humour is generally at its best when it’s more situational and subtle, with a couple of the broader comic moments falling flat and feeling a little out of place tonally. But any minor quibbles are quickly forgiven of this beautifully made, hugely enjoyable festive treat. As the characters take their seats to watch that perennial favourite It’s A Wonderful Life in the town’s quaint old picture house, I couldn’t help but think that this time next year many of us will likely be settling down to rewatch Happiest Season. Rejoice! Finally a festive rom com that makes the yuletide queer. Oh, and the film sounds pretty queer too, with the spin-off soundtrack executive produced by Justin Tranter, filled to the brim with LGBTQ+ songwriters or artists including Tegan and Sara, Anne-Marie, Bebe Rexha, Brandy Clark, Carlie Hanson, and Shea Diamond.
By James Kleinmann
Happiest Season premieres exclusively on Hulu in the USA on Wednesday November 25th 2020.