Happiest Season movie review: don we now our gay apparel…

part of my Directed by Women series
MaryAnn’s quick take: Finds something fresh and gently feminist in the tropes and claptrap of an overbaked genre. Stewart and Davis have terrific chemistry, and the supporting cast of modern legends of funny is to die for.
I’m “biast” (pro): love the cast; desperate for movies by and about women
I’m “biast” (con): not generally a fan of romantic comedies
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
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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.)

Happiest Season Kristen Stewart Dan Levy
With this ring, Abby plans to pop the question…

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.

The casually silly sentimentality of Happiest Season is a huge step forward for Hollywood inclusion.

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.

Happiest Season
Is there room in this family for Abby?

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.

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Owen1120
Owen1120
Thu, Dec 03, 2020 2:13am

I haven’t watched this yet, but I’ll be definitely watching this for Mary Holland, who I’ve listened to on podcasts for years (I think about this moment where she makes everybody lose it with her opening line). Her work with Wild Horses, an improv troupe of four women, is also great.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aj1O9Ui6Bc4

amanohyo
amanohyo
Thu, Dec 03, 2020 4:43pm

I am also not a lesbian, but Davis makes both of my nonexistent ovaries pop, so I’ill definitely check this out. The last lesbian romcom I watched was Kissing Jessica Stein (which chickened out a bit at the end) so it’s been a while… no wait, I also saw The Favourite, not precisely a rom, definitely a com. Thanks for the recommendation!

Also, since I am a basic comedy bitch, I cannot think of Stewart in a lesbian role without thinking of some other rolls and giggling:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A4kpVO56OBU

MarkyD
Fri, Dec 04, 2020 5:33pm

I watched this due to the great reviews and really enjoyed it. Yes, its messy in spots but I forgave it. Great chemistry between Kristin and Mackenzie really makes this fun to watch.

Ampersand
Ampersand
Fri, Dec 25, 2020 4:17am

As a lesbian, I’m glad there’s more rep out there, but at the same time this whole movie felt like a stress test and I’m so tired of seeing our stories center around coming out. And this recent trend of period pieces of lesbians who love one another but can never be together do absolutely nothing for me. It just feels like the story straight people would rather see us in because apparently queer pain is delicious to the non-queer palate. Can we just get a movie where women loving women is taken as a given and accepted and treated as normal and not the cause of angst? This is okay, but I think I’ll exchange it for a gift card.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Ampersand
Sun, Dec 27, 2020 9:10pm

I think we’re edging closer to that kind of movie. We’re not quite there yet, but I think it will be here soon.

Ampersand
Ampersand
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Wed, Dec 30, 2020 1:05am

I don’t necessarily believe that’s true. I think that recent examples in animation like Steven Universe, The Dragon Prince (which still has a serious Bury Your Gays problem) and the new She-Ra in particular (at one point, the day is literally saved by lesbian love) have shown us worlds and stories where gender variance and non-heterosexual orientation being accepted without so much as batting an eye are possible. These are television shows, though Steven Universe does have a movie out. It’s odd to think that the, ‘grown up,’ movies and series out there have to catch up with the stuff that’s meant for younger folks.

Bluejay
Bluejay
reply to  Ampersand
Wed, Dec 30, 2020 2:55am

It’s odd to think that the, ‘grown up,’ movies and series out there have to catch up with the stuff that’s meant for younger folks.

I think it’s hopeful, in a way. The kids who’ve loved Steven Universe and She-Ra are going to grow up and demand the same quality of storytelling from their movies (or make those movies themselves).