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‘Happiest Season’ a different kind of holiday rom-com

November 23, 2020
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Finding freshness in any longstanding entertainment genre can be a trying task. How does one bring a sense of newness or novelty to something utterly familiar without losing the essence of what makes that thing worthy of exploration in the first place?

Take romantic comedies, for example. We’re in the midst of a rom-com renaissance of sorts, with streaming services taking up the baton for the studios that have largely abandoned the genre. And while most of these new offerings are various shades of beige, content to stick to the tricks and tropes with which we’re all familiar, there are a few that succeed in breathing new life into the form.

“Happiest Season” is one of those few.

The film, directed and co-written by Clea DuVall and streaming on Hulu, is an outstanding movie, a smart and slyly subversive take on the genre. Featuring a dynamite cast and a thoughtful story, it’s the kind of high-end rom-com that just doesn’t come along that often. Maneuvering the relationship complexities that come with holidays and meeting parents and the whole deal while ALSO exploring some of the realities of queer romance? That’s one hell of a tightrope walk, but DuVall and her crew practically dance across it, embracing the joy and pain alike.

(In case you haven’t guessed yet, I REALLY liked this movie.)

Abby (Kristen Stewart, “Underwater”) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis, “The Turning”) are in love. They’ve been together for a while, living together and generally embracing one another. Both are accomplished – Abby is completing her PhD in art history; Harper is a political reporter. So when the time comes and Harper finally invites Abby home for Christmas to meet her family, Abby is thrilled. She decides that she’s ready to fully commit and – despite the misgivings of her best friend John (Dan Levy, TV’s “Schitt’s Creek”) – pop the question.

Alas, it isn’t going to be that simple. See, it turns out that Harper has not only not told her family that she and Abby are a couple, she hasn’t told them that she’s gay. She’s concerned that their conservative outlook – not to mention her dad’s political aspirations – might result in considerable friction if she came out.

And so it is that when Abby arrives at Harper’s family home, it is as Harper’s “roommate.” Harper’s parents Tipper (Mary Steenburgen, TV’s “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist”) and Ted (Victor Garber, “Dark Waters”) are welcoming, if a little standoffish – both seem concerned more with appearances than anything else. She also meets Harper’s sisters, the eager-to-please Jane (Mary Holland, “Golden Arm”) and the resentful Sloane (Alison Brie, “Horse Girl”) – both of whom seem just as desperate for parental approval as Harper.

In the course of keeping their relationship secret, there are plenty of near misses. And the more time they spend with Harper’s family, the more Abby starts to question exactly what their situation really is. When ex-boyfriend Liam (Jake McDorman, TV’s “The Right Stuff”) turns up at a family dinner, invited by Harper’s mother, for instance. Or when she discovers the truth behind Harper’s falling out with former best friend Riley (Aubrey Plaza, “Black Bear”).

In the midst of all of it, Ted is wooing supporters for a potential mayoral run, so the pressure is on the entire family to present a united front of domestic bliss – a front that Abby keeps unintentionally upsetting – despite the multitude of cracks running though the foundation … cracks that could ultimately undermine what Abby and Harper have created together.

“Happiest Season” is an absolute joy to watch. Romantic comedies that treat their central relationship with honesty are relatively rare as it is; to see a queer relationship portrayed thusly is rarer still. And while we’ve seen stories where relationships struggle in the face of familial interactions, very few get that dynamic as right as this one does.

There’s plenty of formula here – DuVall is smart enough to know that you needn’t reinvent the rom-com wheel – but it’s so well-executed that the blueprint disappears. But “Happiest Season” also eschews some basic genre foundations. For instance, there’s no meet-cute here. This isn’t a story about falling in love, but rather about navigating the sometimes-muddy waters of being in love. And the central deception is one that feels all too resonant in a world where many still remain sadly closeted.

And that’s the thing. It’s a frothy, holiday rom-com that also serves as an honest and thoughtful consideration of the realities that come with queer relationships. Not so long ago, this movie might well have been viewed as some sort of overt political statement; the fact that “Happiest Season” handles everything with such breezy grace might be the most impressive thing in a movie packed with the impressive.

Lest we forget, it’s also very funny. The dialogue is sharp and there are some great situational moments; we even get a few bits of physical comedy. And the humor punches up – none of these laughs are at the expense of those without power or agency. Throwaway lines, callbacks, goofy gags – it’s all here, part of the fundamental fabric of what makes the movie work.

I’ve come around on Kristen Stewart. I was one of those who unfairly dismissed her in the heyday of “Twilight,” but she is undeniably gifted. She’s fantastic here, an amiable everywoman who manages to be bemused by the buttoned-up deception surrounding her. She carries big chunks of the movie, but also displays a light touch when stepping back is warranted. Davis is excellent here as well, conveying beautifully the subtle and not-so-subtle shifts that we all make when returning to the homes of our childhoods. Watching her slowly transform into the person she believes everyone wants her to be is fantastic. And the two of them together are lovely, exuding the up-and-down energy of a relationship that feels genuine – their chemistry is phenomenal.

Those two carry the day, but they’re far from alone. Brie is outstanding as Sloane, brimming with angry one-upmanship and delivering acid with a smile. Holland (who co-wrote the script) drips with eagerness, smiling through the shadows cast by her more accomplished siblings. Steenburgen is a hoot, perfectly capturing a certain flavor of upper-middle-class motherhood, while Garber is just right as a guy whose own ambitions blind him to his surroundings. Plaza and McDorman are note-perfect in their respective roles, while Levy is a chatty, charming delight.

I had high hopes for “Happiest Season,” but the movie still managed to exceed them. It is thoughtful and hilarious and representational, a holiday rom-com extravaganza with something to say, though it never eclipses the medium with the message. Stewart and Davis are outstanding, and it seems as though Clea DuVall might be just as good behind the camera as she is in front of it.

All told, “Happiest Season” is happy indeed.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 30 November 2020 22:44

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