VOD film review: Happiest Season
James R | On 28, Nov 2020
Director: Clea DuVall
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Dan Levy, Victor Garber, Mary Steenburgen
Watch Happiest Season online in the UK: Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Virgin Movies / Google Play / Sky Store / Microsoft Store
“She is my person, and I really want everyone to know that,” says Abby (Kristen Stewart), as she prepares to spend Christmas with the family of her girlfriend, Harper (Mackenzie Davis). The only problem? Harper hasn’t told them that Abby is her partner. Or that she’s gay.
That’s the starting point for Happiest Season, a romantic comedy that balances festive feel-good humour with an open-hearted tale of acceptance, both of one’s family and of oneself. And so Abby agrees to go along with Harper’s pretence and spends her Christmas time sleeping in a separate bedroom, claiming to be her roommate and sitting on the sidelines, as Harper’s family do their thing – which mostly involves them being the backdrop for Harper’s dad (Victor Garber), who’s running for mayor.
The group are certainly a motley bunch, from the set-in-her-ways matriarch Tipper (a delightful Mary Steenburgen), who is fixated on getting the perfect family photo for Instagram, and the try-hard-put-upon Jane (an endearingly desperate Mary Holland) to uptight sister Sloane (Alison Brie), who is trying to get through the everyday drag of an unhappy marriage. Watching them all interact is a joy, especially when Harper and Sloane bring out each other’s competitive streak.
Brie would be stealing scenes here, if it weren’t for the sublime lead couple of Davis and Stewart. Davis, who delivered a star-making turn in Halt and Catch Fire, gets the chance to shine as someone wrestling with the challenge of being herself in front of her loved ones, while Stewart once again gets to display her comedy chops while still leaning into the pain and frustration of not being able to be herself either.
Their slightly dysfunctional dynamic, and Harper’s selfish behaviour, don’t always give you explicit reasons to root for the couple, which sounds like a death knell for a romantic comedy. But while Harper could do with more screen-time to flesh out her motivations, Happiest Season’s strength also lies in its inclusive philosophy – it trusts Davis and Stewart to have enough chemistry to sell a bump in their relationship, while allowing the film time to spend with everyone else in the broad ensemble.
As well as Brie’s own internal struggles, that means Aubrey Plaza gets a chance to flesh out her character, Riley, Harper’s ex-girlfriend who is bursting with wry self-confidence and doesn’t suffer from the same communication difficulties. It also gives a hugely welcome amount of screen-time to the wonderful Dan Levy, who is hilarious as Abby’s best friend, John. “She’s not a rice cooker,” he exclaims, when he learns of Abby’s hope to marry Harper at the beginning of the film. His sarcastic but insightful remarks lead to the movie’s most moving scene.
Director Clea DuVall, who co-wrote the script with Mary Holland, makes sure Happiest Season embraces each character’s different experience, and the different pressures they face, whether that’s fear of not being accepted, of not fitting in or of ruining Christmas. As the first mainstream festive film with a lesbian couple at its core, Happiest Season could have tackled such issues with a heavy hand, but it’s a decidedly upbeat affair. The screenplay is peppered with wonderful one-liners – “This is Harper’s orphan friend,” says almost every family member as they pigeon-hole Abby every time they introducer her – and amusing set pieces, which even include one moment of someone literally being shut in a closet.
That light touch helps you warm up to a whole group of rounded characters, which means that there’s someone to identify with, relate to and understand for every person in the audience. If that means you end up longing for a spin-off featuring Riley and John, Happiest Season is all the happier because of it.