Clea DuVall’s new film “Happiest Season” follows the well trodden route of a young loved up person introducing their new partner to their parents, ranging from “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” back in 1967 and later resulting in “Meet the Parents”, “The Family Stone” and even “Shrek 2”. It’s a fun, reliable premise and lays the way for plenty of farcical situations, jolly old misunderstandings and at least one pet related mishap or somebody falling off a roof. It’s been done plenty of times before, but adhering to a historically successful plot structure isn’t anything without a good script, memorable characters and a good bit of heart. Going into “Happiest Season”, I was worried that it was going to be a pale imitation of the films I mentioned earlier, relying entirely on the fact that the lead couple is gay to carry the story. Luckily, “Happiest Season” is heartfelt, funny, festive and while it may not quite result in the lasting legacy of something like “Meet the Parents”, is still a genuinely entertaining time.
Young couple Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis) are living it up in New York with the seemingly perfect relationship, so much so that Harper invites Abby to spend Christmas at her family home. Just before arriving, Harper tells Abby that she hasn’t come out to her parents yet because of her father’s (Victor Garber) upcoming mayoral campaign and that she’s told them that Abby is her straight roommate who was orphaned at a young age. Abby, alongside the rest of Harper’s family spend the week attending dinners and balls in the lead up to Christmas, all the while maintaining that she and Harper are just friends.
From the beginning we know that Abby and Harper will end up together and that the family will eventually accept Harper and Abby and come to love Abby and that Christmas Day will be snowy and cosy and beautiful. That doesn’t matter, this is the kind of movie where we don’t want or expect too many deviances from the traditional formula. I still maintain that Stewart is overrated and wooden and here is no exception to that; she’s awkward and charmless and completely boring on screen, but strangely it works to a degree for a film like this. The film is full of vivacious and distinctive characters who are responsible for the majority of the jokes, so by casting someone passive and uninteresting like Stewart, the rest of the cast is able to really shine and all she has to do is look uncomfortable at their antics. It’s painfully obvious when Stewart is alone on screen and it probably still would have been better if they had gone someone with a personality but luckily it didn’t ruin the whole thing.
There are a couple of missed opportunities throughout and some of the later jokes fall a little flat but overall this is a genuinely funny movie. Mary Holland as Harper’s oddball but sweet-natured sister Jane is particularly hilarious, and absolutely deserves the reaction she’s been receiving (I snorted my drink through my nose when Abby arrived and Jane pulled her into a hug to tell her how brave she was for being an orphan). Mary Steenburgen is likewise fun as Harper’s mother (“Don’t worry sweetheart, I once took too many Ambien and bought a racehorse online”) while Alison Brie is cold and sarcastic as Harper’s older sister Sloane and drips with patronising venom as she explains that her business creates personalised gift experiences, not gift baskets. I think Dan Levy was wasted a bit as Abby’s gay best friend John, though he did have a couple of nicely placed zingers and delivers a genuinely moving little speech towards the end of the film about how each person’s “coming out” journey is different and unique to them. Aubrey Plaza makes a nice appearance as Harper’s ex girlfriend Riley who was shunned by the town when Harper denied having a relationship with her and outed her as gay and obsessive instead.
This is where the central premise is pushed a little bit; maybe if the film had been set in the early 2000s or even as early as ten years ago I could see the whole plot point of Harper concealing her sexuality for the sake of her father’s political campaign making sense. In 2020, it just doesn’t, especially since Harper’s family seems to be based in Konneticut (a distinctly liberal region of the States), in a town which has its own drag bar which Abby and Riley visit and is absolutely pumping. It doesn’t seem to be set in a particularly religious or oppressive town and at no point in the film are the parents hinted at being even overtly old fashioned in this sense. In fact it would be far more likely that a political candidate in the climate depicted in the film would jump at the opportunity to support their gay child and be seen as an ally of the LGBT community. So in this sense the story is a little disingenuous, but its a small quibble and completely forgivable considering how well the film portrays the themes surrounding homosexuality and acceptance.
I enjoyed “Happiest Season” a lot, and is something I would happily see added to the list of Christmas themed holiday titles. I like these kind of screwball sort of romantic comedies and its always better when the story has a genuine heart to it, which thanks to a sweet script and a believable and infectious supporting cast, “Happiest Season” has in spades.
By Jock Lehman