I will be accepting no other applications, Happiest Season is THE cute Christmas rom-com of 2020. It has all the classic Christmas movie cliches: someone hanging off a gutter (is it EVEN a Christmas movie if no one is hanging off a gutter?); brawls on Christmas Eve; obligatory trip to the mall even though NO ONE goes to malls anymore; there is even LEANING. There are also tons of classic rom-com cliches, like overbearing families, mistaken—or in this case, misleading—identities, fake boyfriends, old boyfriends AND girlfriends, and big dramatic confrontations at parties.
Happiest Season is, in many ways, a very cliché movie, but in one giant way it is not: it’s about a lesbian couple. Just by recentering the story on a romantic pairing we don’t often see centered in mainstream Hollywood films, Happiest Season gets a jolt of freshness and energy. It also adds real stakes to the central conflict, because “I don’t want to tell my parents about my promotion”, or whatever similar “success is to be shunned” contrivance is happening in this week’s Hallmark movie, isn’t a real problem, but “I’m afraid to come out to my conservative parents” IS a real problem, and it’s one that carries a lot of emotional weight.
Happiest Season sells its cliches the old-fashioned way: by casting the sh-t out of the production. Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis play Abby and Harper, respectively, a couple in love and faced with that age-old dilemma: what to do at Christmas. Abby has no family—a plot point played for the perfect amount of recurring humor—but Harper comes from a close-knit family with a super beautiful house in the country. Off to Harper’s they go. The problem is that Harper is not out, and she has told her parents that Abby is her straight, orphaned roommate. Davis and Stewart have GREAT chemistry, which carries Happiest Season through the first-act cliches and into the third-act confrontations. Rom-coms live and die by the chemistry of their leads, and Happiest Season thrives with Stewart and Davis.
But it’s not just Stewart and Davis delivering, because Happiest Season has a fantastic supporting cast. Victor Garber and Mary Steenburgen play Harper’s parents: would-be mayor Ted and his supportive spouse, Tipper. Alison Brie pops up as Harper’s over-achieving elder sister, Sloane, and Mary Holland—who co-wrote the script with director Clea Duvall—plays her oddball younger sister, Emily. Harper’s family has real psycho suburban energy, which explains Harper’s elaborate façade perfectly. If she isn’t the perfect, dutiful daughter, her parents will have no use for her in their country club life, something that happened to Sloane after stepping away from her law career to raise twins (Ted and Tipper basically mommy-track their own daughter, yikes). There is, however, a spot-on running gag about Sloane’s post-law career making “carefully curated gift experiences with customized vessels” (read: gift baskets) which made me laugh a couple times.
That’s the real secret of Happiest Season. It’s got a helluva cast, a great leading couple, a solid premise, and it’s also very well written. Duvall and Holland’s script moves, loaded with great dialogue and jokes—Dan Levy crushes it as Abby’s best friend and worst pet sitter—and a well-managed tension as Abby and Harper inevitably come to crisis during their closeted holiday. Duvall never overplays the dramatic tension, but then, she never has to because what’s at stake for Harper is so real and tangible. Similarly, Abby’s transition from support to resentment is completely believable and sympathetic, without ever launching her into shrew territory, which a less-good movie would do, simply so Harper can save face. But here the point is not to let Harper save face, but to confront the issues roiling under the surface of her family, of which her sexual orientation is just one.
Happiest Season is charming, funny, and pretty much everything you can ask for from a holiday rom-com. There’s a great f-cking house with flawless professional decorations, a talented cast given a solid script, and a director who knows how to both let the absurdity of the inevitable confrontation play out, but also manage the very real fall-out. Even the cliches read more as classics than overplayed bits, thanks largely to the overall tone of the film, which is warm and affectionate and comforting. Curl up on the couch with a mug of hot cocoa and let Happiest Season jolly you into holiday cheer, or whatever passes for holiday cheer in this hell year. We could certainly do worse than a funny rom-com that just happens to be about a couple of women.
Happiest Season is available in whatever theaters are still open, and on Hulu in the US from November 25. It will be available for rent or purchase in Canada on all digital platforms from November 26.
Bringing someone home over the holidays? What could go wrong? Watch Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Mary Steenburgen, Victor Garber, Aubrey Plaza and Dan Levy in @HappiestSeason, available to rent or buy on November 26th. ðŸŽ„â„ï¸ðŸŽðŸ¥‚ pic.twitter.com/LKPNLX6mlK— eOne Films Canada (@eOnefilms) November 9, 2020