‘Tis the season to be inundated with Christmas films, as I’m sure you’ve noticed during a scroll through your streaming platform of choice. This year, amid the usual festive fodder (yes, I’m looking at you, Holidate), lies a gem.
I’ve been excitedly waiting for Happiest Season to be released since I heard it was in development, back in 2019, which I’m pretty sure with the way time works now is at least five years ago. It’s the second feature film from actor-director Clea DuVall, whose more known for her work front side of the camera (Girl, Interrupted and the iconic But I’m a Cheerleader), and co-written by DuVall with comedian Mary Holland (who plays Joanna in the film).
Happiest Season stars Kristen Stewart as Abby, and Mackenzie Davis as her girlfriend, Harper, who we meet in the run-up to the holidays. Harper, who seems to be high on the fumes of seasonal cheer, invites the less festively-enthused Abby to her parent’s place for a traditional family Christmas.
Abby accepts, and, in the process of getting fully onboard, decides to bring her planned marriage proposal forward to Christmas day. An idea that outrages her best friend, John (Schitt’s Creek star Daniel Levy), who asks why she would want to ruin a perfect relationship by tricking the woman she loves into a “box of heteronormativity and trying to make her your property”.
But these wise words fall on love-deafened ears, and Abby sets off with Harper to her waspy family’s mansion. On route though she discovers that Harper isn’t out to her family like she’d said she was, so if Abby could pretend to be her straight room-mate, until after the holidays – when she will tell them they’re a couple – that would be great.
At the Caldwell’s family seat we’re introduced to the poised conservative parents, Ted (Victor Garber) and Tipper (Mary Steenburgen), and sisters, Joanna (co-writer Mary Holland, who steals every scene she’s in), and Sloane (Alison Brie, on great bitch form), whose model family include twins that give off serious Children of the Corn vibes.
So far, so familiar-sounding, right? We’ve got the gay best friend, a home that would have Nancy Meyers salivating, and a situation that’s rife with slapstick potential (Abby even gets shut in a closet). But underneath the glossy exterior, there’s a sombre tone that speaks to the pain and fears a lot of queer people still experience.
Stewart, who often seems almost physically uncomfortable on screen in other films, is warm, funny, and full of emotion here. She viscerally portrays how painful it can be to love someone who is not comfortable with themselves, balancing patience and understanding for her girlfriend’s fear of coming out, while dealing with the emotional toll that takes.
Later in the film – so I won’t ruin it by quoting – Dan Levy’s character has a speech about the spectrum of coming-out stories. The good, the awful, and all that lie in-between.
When I told my mum I liked women (as well as men) she took it in the absolute best way a person, who is being told something they didn’t expect, can take it. She said that as long as whoever I was with made me feel happy and safe then the gender of that person didn’t matter at all.
My dad is a little different. Like Harper’s father, he’s a kind and loving person, but he’s from a very conservative background, and over the years he’s said things that have made me very sad. I always thought I would tell him, at some point, when there was someone to shout about. But as I don’t easily get to the shouting-about stage, that “at some point” has turned into years.
My mum has said, regardless of whether I’m with anyone, he should know who I am, the full picture; in technicolour if you will. But that I’ll need to be prepared for his reaction not to be positive at first. And, well, I guess I’m still preparing.
Happiest Season is quietly revolutionary. It’s not just a really great romantic comedy, with a fantastic cast (Aubrey Plaza also shows up, and Drag Race fans are treated to an extended cameo from Jinkx Monsoon and BenDeLaCreme). It’s also a gay Christmas film, and a lesbian love story that ends happily, where the protagonists aren’t stuffed into corsets, and no-one gazes pensively out at a body of water (seriously, this happens way more than you would think: Carol, Colette, The Handmaiden, Ammonite, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, I could go on…).
It’s a joyful film, with just the right amount of cheese, and made by gay people (DuVall, Stewart, and Garber are all openly queer), for gay people, and anyone else who wants to have themselves a merry little Christmas.