A groundbreaking and hypocritically conventional Christmas movie
Christmas films have largely retained the traditionally conservative values that the religious roots of the holiday suggest. From the championing of family values, to cheerful heterosexual couples overcoming their difficulties, the variants in these movies barely change. Only recently have tweaks been made regarding this winter holiday within film. This has been thanks to streamers, which allow “riskier” content to take a leap. We thus have actress Clea DuVall’s second directorial outing with her meet-the-parents Christmas film Happiest Season (2020).
Happiest Season is the story of a couple, Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis), who live happily in Pittsburg. Abby is a bit of a Christmas skeptic due to some trauma related to her dead parents. In an effort to cheer her up for the holiday, Harper invites Abby to spend it with her parents (Victor Garber, Mary Steenburgen). However, on the way to her parents’ house, Harper confesses to Abby that she hasn’t come out to them yet. Thus, Harper and Abby must pretend to be friends until Harper can ease the news on them.
Happiest Season follows much of the same holiday and meet-the-parents cliches that we’ve seen in the past. This film is being hailed as a pioneer in regards to representation, by being the first mainstream Christmas film with a lead homosexual couple. Apart from the need to applaud such a milestone, it is also frankly shocking that it hadn’t happened yet, but this leads me to the fact that Christmas films still retain an invisible but strong conservatism.
DuVall is demonstrating a particular adeptness in bringing out organic performances from her actors. Davis and Stewart are both strong in the leads, but don’t particularly outshine the genre comforts either. The supporting cast is where DuVall brings out her gems though, especially with Daniel Levy (hot off his Schitts Creek (2015-2020) sweep) as the – ironically – cliché gay-best-friend, and Mary Holland as the odd-sister in Harper’s family. I don’t know if this is because DuVall was frequently shunted as a supporting player herself most of her career, but I found most of the supporting cast to be more magnetic with their performances than the central performers.
This is largely due to the script as well. DuVall, who also co-wrote the script, makes the family characters stand-out too much as stand-ins and cardboard cutouts. Writing like this can sometimes be tempered with quality acting, bringing an added depth to an otherwise “stock” character. However, DuVall wasn’t able to tone down key cast members’ acting leading to some very exaggerated performances. Happiest Season, however, does dive into some very interesting and refreshing explorations about the complexities of relationships and particularly how coming-out can be such an important part of one’s identity. DuVall largely dove into these issues by placing our characters in some complicated and intriguing situations. At one point I was expecting, and hoping, for DuVall to pull the rug from under us and not give us a predictable ending, but I was sorely disappointed on that front.
In fact, it is the ending that most angered me about the ruined potential of Happiest Season. DuVall was doing so well to create the relationship and character complexities, leading audiences to consider the different perspectives that love can have, only to give in to some cheesy and non-sensical resolution. There are clear indications, throughout the ensuing narrative, of a developing toxic relationship that would have clearly been called out in a “straight” romance. However, I was shocked to see this toxicity endorsed and glossed over for a romantically traditional ending. This seemed to even betray DuVall’s own message of finding one’s own identity and control, by not giving her protagonists their required independence. The resolution was so sloppy it led me back to my theory of conservatism still having such a strong grip on this particular film niche. Everything is resolved too perfectly in Happiest Season to the point of me questioning whether it was perhaps and intermittent parody sequence. Were the filmmakers too scared about the “radicalness” of having a homosexual couple at the fore that nothing else could be tweaked or modernized about the genre? The ingredients and intentions were all clearly there, and yet shockingly and disappointingly abandoned.
In the end, Happiest Season proves to be a rather curious new Christmas film, with some largely insightful explorations about relationships and queerness. The film largely follows the generic structure and comforts of its genre companions, but I was sincerely worried about the actual final message that its resolution leaves behind, making me doubt the possible outweighing value of the film’s positive aspects.