REVIEW: Happiest Season [2020]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 102 minutes
    Release Date: November 25th, 2020 (USA)
    Studio: Hulu
    Director(s): Clea DuVall
    Writer(s): Clea DuVall & Mary Holland / Clea DuVall (story)

Maybe another of your exes will bring out dessert.

It’s Christmas week and romance is in the air as Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis) walk Pittsburgh one last night before going their separate ways for the holiday. The latter is so smitten under the stars and blinking lights that she throws caution to the wind to invite the former to come along and use the festivities as an excuse to finally meet her family. They’ve been living together for six months and Abby has no other relatives with which to enjoy the day, so it seems like a no-brainer … until the next morning brings a strange clarity that almost feels like Harper regrets her decision. It’s not until they’re already on the way that she explains why: her parents don’t yet know she’s gay.

That’s actually a bit reductive since Harper’s admission brings to light something worse. Not only has she not come out to her family, she also lied about it. There was no reason for Abby to think there would be a problem since she was told weeks ago that Harper’s family was supportive of their relationship. Meeting them was therefore the next logical step. In fact, she was so excited by the prospect of getting closer to the woman she loves that she was willing to embrace Christmas despite swearing the season off ever since her parents passed away. To hear that going means pretending they’re just friends is thus a tough pill to swallow. Especially since the main reason is Harper’s conservative father’s bid for mayor.

The stage is set for a wealth of yuletide chaos as secrets and glad-handing façades overflow the quaint little streets of Harper’s Waspy hometown. Happiest Season director Clea DuVall and co-writer Mary Holland don’t therefore disappoint insofar as letting it unfold with all the usual antics of romantic comedy subterfuge versus emotionally dramatic revelations. And while the nuts and bolts of the plot are obviously similar to Mike NicholsThe Birdcage update, having its central focus be the family its leads don’t think will understand rather than the one being asked to hide for their benefit does provide a few new wrinkles. We watch as Ted (Victor Garber) and Tipper (Mary Steenburgen) willingly throw their children under the bus to court a potentially wealthy campaign benefactor (Ana Gasteyer).

Keeping to that comparison point, Harper and Abby simultaneously become both The Goldmans pretending to be straight and the unfortunate couple caught between their truth and an archaic sense of “family values” so as not to rock the boat. They steal glances every now and then (something only Alison Brie as Harper’s eldest sister Sloane catches due to a deep-seated rivalry the two share for their father’s affection), but the chasm between fact and fiction grows with each step thanks to Tipper’s ambition to get her youngest back with her high school boyfriend (Jake McDorman) for the photo opportunity. Abby is forced to quietly watch that dance unfold while also inevitability meeting another former flame—Aubrey Plaza‘s Riley, the first secret partner of which Harper keep cruelly hidden.

The only truly wholesome member of the clan with nothing but a big heart for everyone she meets is Harper and Sloane’s middle sister Jane (Holland). It’s unsurprising then that the family dismisses her as a foolish child. And while the character leans into that distinction by toeing the line of obnoxiousness at the start, it’s not long before we realize that reaction says more about the people who believe she’s “too much” than Jane herself. This family has been so caught up with “reputation” and outside appearances that they’ve labeled her a liability to be treated as though she’s “the help” and not a member worthy of love beyond obligation. Whether wittingly or not, Jane is the only one who refuses to pretend she’s anyone but herself.

We need that contrast because strict, two-dimensional comic relief doesn’t quite work like it did a decade ago. The same goes for Abby’s BFF John (Dan Levy, in the credits as “Daniel”). On paper he’s the loud gay friend for her to vent to and give acerbic political commentary (with reason as the script flirts with the complexity of issues such as gay marriage being both a way to celebrate love and fall prey to ascribing credence to a hetero-normative, patriarchal custom). But he’s also the only character on-screen with a crucial outsider perspective that Abby needs to make certain she isn’t being put into a box for the greater good (something Riley supplies a complementary insider perspective on). Stereotypical clichés are present, but humanity always comes first.

It’s why Happiest Season can transcend its genre tropes to deliver a mostly fresh take on a tired formula. While there won’t be many surprises, there will be an ample amount of heart to make up. DuVall and Holland aren’t averse to the random bit of absurdity either since nothing compares to a good S&M reindeer or over-zealous mall cops getting off on hard-boiled interrogation tactics, but those are the exceptions sprinkled in for extra flavor rather than the only thing the whole has going for it. They help temper the authentic mix of emotions flowing when the person you love proves to be someone completely different once the public light of her parents shines down upon her. You don’t get to do what Harper does without consequences.

While also unsurprising, those consequences are honest. And no matter how schmaltzy some speeches feel (Levy and Davis each get to deliver one), you cannot deny the impact of the message being conveyed. Credit is deserved here because Abby and Harper could have easily been reduced to cardboard cutouts rather than women reconciling the fact they’ve trapped themselves in an untenable situation because of love. Davis does a great job conveying that extra layer amongst a family that’s intentionally drawn to augment her struggle and Stewart steals the show as the scorned lover doing everything she can to make it work despite a barrage of disillusioning events in response. The vulnerability on display is thus undeniable and exactly what’s necessary to maintain our investment regardless of any familiarity.

[1] Harper (Mackenzie Davis) and Abby (Kristen Stewart), shown. (Photo by: /Hulu)
[2] Eric (Burl Moseley), Sloane (Alison Brie), Abby (Kristen Stewart), Harper (Mackenzie Davis), Jane (Mary Holland), Ted (Victor Garber), and Tipper (Mary Steenburgen), shown. (Photo by: /Hulu)
[3] Dan Levy (John) and Jake McDorman, shown. (Photo by: /Hulu)

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