Most holiday films run with a gimmick as our excuse for paying attention to this particular holiday adventure, and Happiest Season both does and doesn’t have one, and it ends up a fairly magical effort in plot maneuvering.
On the one hand, Abby (Kristen Stewart) is going to spend Christmas with her long-time girlfriend’s (Harper – Mackenzie Davis) family, and the twist is that Harper hasn’t actually told her family that she’s gay yet. Not only has Abby been operating under the theory that Harper came out to her family long ago, but she also doesn’t learn that she will have to pretend to be Harper’s roommate on this several day adventure until they are almost there.
On the other hand, writer/director Clea DuVall blends the “gay secret” into a largely standard web of family quirks, other secrets, and “in our family this-is-thises” until the fact that Harper and Abby are gay doesn’t really change the outline of the script, except insofar as some of the window dressing, from one that follows the hijinx that would ensue if… for example, Rob didn’t want Abby to tell his parents they were in a relationship because she’s a corporate lawyer working for the big box store causing the family business to go under.
Following the cliche-riddled bullet points of the dozens of made-for-television holiday films that come out every year isn’t exactly a sell, and (to some extent) extracting the teeth of “gayness” from a film about a gay couple doesn’t sound like a win, but Happiest Season opts for a kind of normalcy by disinterest that works to deliver its points better than it probably deserves to hope.
Sure, Abby and Harper get into fairly routine arguments that run a course you’d easily imagine given their situation, and Harper’s parents exhibit the hallmarks of being rather right of center politically, which explains Harper’s hesitation, but beyond that the film progresses through avenues that take us simply through “problems” not “gay problems.”
Harper runs into an old boyfriend and begins getting rather chummy with him while largely distancing herself from Abby, Harper’s sisters are quirky caricatures that lead to problems with keeping secrets, and Harper’s parents are, aside from having political aspirations, typical movie parents. While there is an obvious leaning Harper’s parents might have toward “the right” with regard to the fear of telling her parents that she’s gay, the real issue we get is the more genre standard perfectionist parent.
The film’s best effort comes by way of how it moves through its acts and how it uses its supporting characters. Harper and Abby, unfortunately, largely make their way through cliched hurdles, and more often than not react to them in lazy, eye-rolling attempts at emotional withdrawal, but these give Dan Levy and Aubrey Plaza‘s characters more time on screen, and they outshine everything else happening around them.
In the end, Happiest Season has a few laughs, some sappy moments, and a fair amount of thought, which is as much as you might legitimately expect, but it also takes on one of the weightiest aspects of life as a gay person, the dramatic difference in what “being outside” means. It also manages to do it just by letting things happen in slightly different ways than we’re familiar with in this overworked mash-up of genres. The pretense itself is a different creature and takes a different toll on Abby. Ultimately, in two of the film’s best scenes, we see Abby with Riley (Aubrey Plaza) and she struggles with the connection that sparks simply out of the freedom of dropping the act.
It’s a syrupy film, perhaps as it should be, and it’s effort is better than its execution, but it ticks all the holiday misadventure buttons and delivers a lot of fun. It’s too focused on not belaboring points it has to repeat, which leaves many aspects of the plot being put on fast-forward, but where it opens itself most to criticism is perhaps where it least makes sense to put it under the microscope.