Why aren’t there more mainstream lesbian rom-coms?” is the question that must be asked in the wake of the delight that is Happiest Season. More specifically, why aren’t there more mainstream lesbian Christmas rom-coms? Is it because it’s just too dangerous for our impressionable daughters to see how huggably charming and sweetly sexy Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis are together — like, together together? That’s it, isn’t it?
Now, don’t get me wrong: Happiest Season suffers from some of the faults that plague many a romantic comedy, most notably Too Many Absurd Shenanigans and Wait, Why Is This Couple Even Together? And yet somehow seeing the clichés here holds them up for affectionate ridicule while simultaneously normalizing same-sex relationships as perfectly acceptable adorable fodder for a cosy date-night flick. (That latter thing? That’s a good thing.)
I might have had a bit of something in my eye by the end of Season, and I mostly don’t even like romantic comedies. Nor am I a lesbian. I have no skin in this particular game beyond wanting to see more meaty stories by women, about women. So it’s truly terrific to see writer-director Clea DuVall — with her second feature after the pointed 2016 dramedy The Intervention — taking the tropes and claptrap of an overbaked genre and finding something fresh and gently feminist in them.
The always flintily fascinating Stewart (Seberg, Personal Shopper) is our down-to earth escort through rom-com nonsense as Abby, who is already on her way to girlfriend Harper’s (Davis: The Turning, Terminator: Dark Fate) suburban Pittsburgh family manse for Christmas when she learns that, actually, Harper hasn’t even come out to her family yet, and would Abby just pretend to be Harper’s platonic straight roommate for Christmas? Abby is, naturally, appalled — she was even going to propose to Harper on Christmas morning! Her first impulse is to run away back to the city… but she loves Harper. Harper is her “person.” So Abby reluctantly agrees to the charade.
Abby soon discovers that: Harper’s dad (Victor Garber: Dark Waters, Self/less) is running for mayor, which means that surely any hint of Teh Gay in the family would be disastrous. (He makes speeches about “family tradition and faith.”) Harper’s mom (Mary Steenburgen: A Walk in the Woods, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya) is a domestic goddess around whom everything must be literally picture perfect. Harper and her sisters, once-was-lawyer Sloane (Alison Brie: The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, The Post) and pile-of-kook Jane (Mary Holland [Good Posture, Unicorn Store], also DuVall’s coscreenwriter), are in a constant battle for their parents’ approval, which is hard to come by and, once lost, never recovered.
The shenanigans potential here is, of course, huge, and many will swirl around Abby until she is pushed to a breaking point. (Though you do want to ask her from the beginning why she is considering proposing marriage to someone whose immediate family she’s never met even though they are seemingly only a short drive away.) We don’t see much of her relationship with Harper outside of this stressful context, which makes it difficult to appreciate why Abby sticks with Harper through it all. I don’t mind this so much: Stewart and Davis have terrific chemistry, which goes a long way toward selling us on them as a couple. And there’s also a sneakiness to letting the worth of their pairing slide by as a given, as something the movie takes for granted… because that’s how the genre has always treated opposite-sex couples. The casually silly sentimentality of Happiest Season is a huge step forward for Hollywood inclusion.
Disbelief must be suspended, as is often the case with romantic comedies. But the supporting cast of modern legends of funny is to die for: there’s also the fabulous Dan Levy (Admission) as Abby’s best friend and sounding board. (The fact that his character sees Abby and Harper’s relationship as “perfect” is a good way to cement the couple as worth saving. Best friends know these things.) DuVall has loaded up her movie with so many smart, interesting, droll, and different women. Holland’s Jane comes into her own in a way that makes you wish she had her own movie. Aubrey Plaza (Ingrid Goes West, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates) is here in all her usual deadpan glory as a former high-school friend of Harper’s. Ana Gasteyer (Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, Fun Size) and Sarayu Blue (Blockers, Lions for Lambs) play politically powerful women connected to Dad’s mayoral campaign. The lovey stuff may have its issues, but the humorous stuff is slyly sharp. If it’s all a bit of a mess, it’s nevertheless a tremendously enjoyable one.