**Contains potential spoilers**
Happiest Season, which arrives on Hulu in the US today Wednesday November 25th, ticks all the Christmas film and rom-com boxes. It’s got awkward family encounters and secrets. It’s got festive set ups from ice skating to Christmas parties. It has ghosts of Christmases past (and relationships past) and a healthy dose of heart-warming romance. It appears to be a fun festive movie and it is. But Clea DuVall and Mary Holland’s film goes deeper than this, with a story about acceptance—from others, but also yourself—that will resonate powerfully with many.
The power of both rom-coms and Christmas films shouldn’t be underestimated. Neither should the quality of both when done right. There’s not space here for the essay and testament to the art of the rom-com, but as much as I adore both genres, I can count on one hand the times I see myself—as a Queer woman—represented in them. For a lot of us, rom-coms are our adolescent and grown-up fairy tales. They sell us the idea of a ‘Happily Ever After’ and while on one hand impossible standards of love and romance aren’t healthy, a little make-believe is. Rom-coms, for better or worse, are places where we learn about love, about relationships. While we might never be as cool as Meg Ryan at her 90s peak, again a little fantasy and aspirational fashion never hurt anyone.
Couple the rom-com with Christmas and you double the potency; love stories and the festive season make a powerful combination. Whether it’s It’s A Wonderful Life or The Muppets Christmas Carol, or in my house Rent, movies become part of family Christmases in the same way decorations and mulled wine do. And so it feels like a real Christmas present not to have to pretend that Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz are, this time at last, going to choose each other in The Holiday instead of the men, and be able to watch a genuine lesbian romance for the holidays.
What Happiest Season gives us is more than just a picture-perfect Christmas story with added LGBTQ+ representation. It reinforces both the idea that rom-coms carry more weight than audiences or critics give them credit for, and shows the importance of women writing these stories.
Beginning with the sweet seeming set up of Harper (Mackenzie Davis) inviting her girlfriend Abby (Kristen Stewart) home for Christmas, it’s also an attempt to ‘cure’ Abby’s indifference to the festive season, and as she leans into this there’s an added element of festive romance with Abby’s intention to propose. Quickly complicating matters however is the fact that Harper hasn’t told her parents about Abby, or even that’s she’s gay. It’s an ideal situation for comedy mix-ups and close scrapes (Abby hiding literally, in a closet, is a hilarious moment admittedly) before a sweet and easy resolution where everything is fine.
DuVall and Holland’s screenplay doesn’t take the easy route though. Instead, it shows us the complexities of ‘coming out’ and acceptance not by others so much, as of ourselves. When Harper is outed by her sister, it cuts deep. Abby’s hurt, and the conflict she’s’ felt over her love for Harper and her need to live an open and honest life, mean there are elements of both the women’s experience that will resonate, and while we do get the happy ending the festive season (and rom-com) asks for, it’s harder won.
Because when your love story isn’t the conventional one that most rom-coms offer us, actually it’s more than just declaring your love for the one you’re with—which Harper does readily to Abby—it’s being willing to declare that love, whatever the consequences to the world. What this film is really about is Harper being able to finally do that, and how that affects both the people she needs to ‘come out’ to, but also her girlfriend.
The crux of the movie is summed up by Abby’s best friend (and terrible pet-sitter) John (Daniel Levy) who tells her that Harper not coming out to her family has nothing to do with Abby, or their love for one another. He reminds her of the spectrum of experiences, from Abby’s where her family loved and supported her, to his where his Dad kicked him out and didn’t speak to him for 13 years. What he also reminds her, and probably a lot of us, is that ‘everybody’s story is different. There’s your version and my version, and everything in between.’ It might feel like a bit of a holiday downer moment to think about those worst of experiences, but actually this speech feels like the hopeful heart of the film, and optimistically one that will become a bit of a classic too. Because Coming Out is so pivotal a moment for Queer people however we do it; it shapes who we are, and who we might become, and what he says next will resonate with anyone who has done that:
‘But the one thing that all of those stories have in common is that moment, right before you say those words, when your heart is racing and you don’t know what’s coming next.’
Whether it’s been ten years or ten days, or we haven’t quite got there yet, every person who has had that experience knows that feeling. Hearing that articulated on screen meant a lot. That moment of shared experience of ‘oh, other people feel this too’. It also feels significant that this isn’t happening to teenagers in school, but to grown-ups who are still struggling a bit, because not everyone comes out in High School, and none of us ‘come out’ just once either. We do it again and again, and that’s the slightly terrifying, but if you’re lucky, ultimately liberating element of Queer life. Hearing that articulated out loud, in a mainstream film, is significant. The film is filled with several beautiful moments of representation, but this speech feels like the heart of something many of us need to hear spoken out loud, both for ourselves and others. That in a strange way actually feels like the perfect heart of a Queer rom-com, the need to be at peace with who you are, to be who you are to other people. That’s why John’s speech will stay with me, and I’m sure many others, for a long time, because, as he continues;
‘And then once you say those words you can’t un-say them. A chapter has ended and a new one has begun, and you have to be ready for that, you can’t do it for anyone else.’
Which is really what this film is about, being ready to be who you are for everyone else and how love supports that. While Abby thinks Harper doesn’t love her enough, actually it turns out, being in that loving relationship finally let Harper step into who she really is. And that moment of self-love, self- acceptance for a Queer narrative, feels just as important as Harper and Abby’s reunion kiss.
It’s a story about family too, and finding a family, which is something a lot of Queer people will relate to. Happiest Season comes neatly full circle from the joke about Abby being the ‘orphan friend’ feeling like an extension of us ‘Queer Orphans’ who might not have a family of our own to go to over the holidays, finding one somewhere else. That thread of the story, that might not be so obvious to an outside perspective, is why this film is a much needed queer Christmas film, because those cosy family Christmases in the usual festive movie offerings, as much as that version is a fun fantasy, for many of my Queer brothers and sisters that is far from reality.
To have a film show a version of building that chosen family feels significant for the Holidays, and to show the hope of being ‘adopted’ into a bigger family, feels like the kind of Christmas fantasy, or Christmas wish, a lot of Queer people out there might have. That we see also in the closing sequence John, whose Coming Out story wasn’t a rosy one, also part of this extended family, is a heart-warming reminder of how we as Queer people also build those families. As a notable aside, to have a ‘gay best friend’ character that has more than just witty quips and fabulous fashion sense included in the film feels like a step forward too (just don’t leave him in charge of the fish, they really do belong in the ocean).
The Christmas films that we return to each year say a lot about us. They connect us to the past, and family and traditions old and new, and that’s also why this film is so significant a shift. All those years of Christmases that reinforce those ideas that in picture-perfect Christmas cards there are only straight people. What I expected from this film was a Christmas story with people whose romance I might finally actually emulate (you know if any of us can ever date again). I didn’t expect to cry for the last 20 minutes of the film. Don’t worry, this is still a joyous holiday rom-com that (spoiler alert?) ends happily, but seeing a version of those very real emotions of the Queer experience—of needing acceptance, the fear of rejection—are things that again, in the Holiday Season, hit closer to home. I worry slightly that straight people will just see this as a fun holiday film, that they won’t feel that same thing—and of course they won’t, not in the same way—but I really hope some non-LGBTQ+ folks who watch it will feel some part of it, and maybe extend that reminder of acceptance to the Queer people in their life this Holiday season too.
There’s a fine line in making a Queer movie. On one hand, the day that there’s a selection of sweet, silly, even bad Christmas movies and rom-coms with Queer centred stories, then there will be a feeling of equality, after all we deserve some truly terrible (in a good way) Queer Christmas movies too. But as much as this looked like a fluffy rom-com on the outside, it’s fitting that there’s something more substantial on the inside, because we aren’t there yet, we still have more stories to tell, and actually, our Queer love stories are often more complex than our straight counterparts. Maybe the two go hand in hand, when the world catches up and coming out, and the fear of rejection are a thing of the past then I can have The Princess Switch movie, but with two princesses or maybe that Kate Winslet/Cameron Diaz Christmas film, but right now, we need those complexities, along with the holiday cheer. Happiest Season also proves rom-com cynics wrong: you can do depth and holiday romance. And for me, it felt like being seen, seeing myself in a holiday film in a way I never have before.
So we don’t have to give up The Holiday or even Love Actually just yet, we certainly don’t have to give up Home Alone or It’s a Wonderful Life, but wouldn’t it be great if we started finding space in that Christmas roster of films for romances, and Christmas family photos, that look a bit more like us.
By Dr. Emily Garside
Happiest Season premieres exclusively on Hulu in the USA today Wednesday November 25th 2020.