Trite Christmas: ‘Happiest Season’

By Anwen Crawford
Despite appearances, this queer romcom is straighter than it seems

Mackenzie Davis and Kristen Stewart in Happiest Season. Photo by Lacey Terrell. © 2020 CTMG

The first disappointing thing about Happiest Season, a new Christmas comedy – with a lesbian twist! – is that its co-star, Kristen Stewart, does not appear at any point in the film wearing a Santa hat. Earth to movie studio: do you know how many women would have paid good money to see this, would have screen-capped and tweeted and direct messaged it across the internet, accompanied by rows of the Hot Face emoji and jokes about waiting up for Santa? What are you, hustlers or idiots?

On the face of it, Happiest Season has queer credentials. Apart from Stewart, megastar bisexual, the cast includes Aubrey “Girls are into me” Plaza and Schitt’s Creek co-creator Dan Levy, who has previously won praise for his role as a pansexual character on that sitcom. Happiest Season is directed by Clea DuVall, whom fans of cult teen flicks will remember fondly from her performance in queer coming-of-age comedy But I’m A Cheerleader (1999). DuVall is openly lesbian – still a rarity in Hollywood. This is her second feature film as director.

But the substance of Happiest Season feels very straight: straight as in heteronormative and straight as in boring. The plot revolves around the dissembling of lesbian couple Harper (Mackenzie Davis) and Abby (Stewart); Harper invites Abby to her family home for Christmas, only to tell Abby en route that she’s previously lied about having come out to her parents, and that Abby will have to pose as her roommate during their stay. At this point, any viewer might expect the deceived girlfriend to jump out of the car and hightail it back to her flat for a happier holiday alone with Christmas television, high-quality alcohol and her vibrator. Alas no. After only a moment’s consideration, Abby agrees to go along with Harper’s lie. “It’s only five days,” she reasons. “How bad can it be?”

Harper’s dad, Ted (Victor Garber), is a local councillor and aspiring mayor, and her mum, Tipper (Mary Steenburgen), is overseeing Ted’s bid for mayoral candidacy down to the last staged detail. Ted’s campaign happens to overlap with Christmas, and requires the whole family to glad-hand at a series of festive fundraising parties both in and outside the home, which, by the way, is one of those houses I’m convinced don’t exist outside American movies, with an entrance hall larger than some people’s apartments. Her parents’ joint ambition becomes Harper’s justification for lying about her relationship with Abby.

The lie motors the film’s farcical mechanics: there are scenes involving hiding behind doors and – you knew this was coming – being stuck inside a closet. But the farce isn’t connected to the characters, it’s imposed on them, leaving a big and unfunny gap between motivation and action. Harper’s family members don’t demonstrate any homophobia, either in word or deed, that would necessitate all this hiding; they’re just rich. Harper has two sisters, whose characters are so thinly drawn that they might as well be named Bitchy and Ditzy, like Santa’s reindeer. All three adult siblings exist in a state of arrested emotional development, in which lying to their parents and fighting with each other constitute their chief familial pleasures. Cue endless lukewarm jokes that pivot on the family’s passive-aggressive remarks to each other about dress, careers and money. I felt thankful while watching this film not to have sprung from the apparently stifling and joyless confines of the bourgeoisie, if it’s really as bad as that. But nor do I believe that anyone is this one-dimensional, not even clichéd rich folk in a Christmas movie.

All of this leaves Harper’s disavowal of her girlfriend feeling like a crummy power play by someone using their own internalised homophobia to shame and smother their partner – an impression strengthened by a subplot involving Riley (Aubrey Plaza), an ex-girlfriend of Harper’s, who had pretty much the same experience with this wealthy daddy’s girl. The best scene in the film involves Riley and Abby seeking shelter with each other in a gay bar where drag queens are singing Christmas carols. At last, some bloody tinsel, and a moment that felt written for a queer audience, as opposed to – well, I don’t know. I’m puzzled as to who this film is for.

Who among a queer viewership will want to watch a comedy in which the leading queer characters spend all their time making each other truly miserable? Or is one meant to screen this film to one’s family at Christmas time, and if so, which of them, either bigoted or enlightened, will find anything to interest, challenge or amuse them here? A bad film is a bad film, regardless of what it’s doing, superficially, to represent a minority. The assembled cast try their best with the material – especially Dan Levy, in the stock role of Gay Best Friend, and Stewart, who transcends her default nervousness long enough to deliver something like self-assuredness in her role as Abby. But they can’t disguise the essential weakness of the script. The final scene sees the now happily united family – which isn’t a spoiler, the ending is predetermined – gathered to watch It’s A Wonderful Life at the cinema. Frank Capra’s holiday classic is a wiser, sadder, funnier film about the ties of family than Happiest Season can hope to be, and that holds true whatever your sexuality. 

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

Mackenzie Davis and Kristen Stewart in Happiest Season. Photo by Lacey Terrell. © 2020 CTMG

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