‘Happiest Season’: Kristen Stewart Is Effortlessly Cool in Clea DuVall’s Queer Holiday Rom-Com
For her second feature as a director, Clea DuVall gets festive with “Happiest Season,” a seasonal queer rom-com following Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis), a young couple in love who seem to be moving forward when Harper invites Abby to come home with her for Christmas. With both of her parents gone, Abby has had trouble getting into the holiday spirit as an adult, but now she finds herself so swept away by it that she makes a plan to propose to Harper on Christmas morning. However, things get complicated on the way to Harper’s parents’ house when she reveals one tiny, inconvenient detail: she hasn’t come out to her family yet.
Abby has an effortlessly cool, lesbian chic style, which makes it somewhat unbelievable that Harper’s family would buy her story that she and Abby are just a couple of straight women living together in Pittsburgh, but they do. Harper’s parents, Tipper (Mary Steenbrugen) and Ted (Victor Garber), still live in her childhood home in the more conservative town of Grove City, PA, and Ted is currently campaigning to be the mayor. Tipper, meanwhile, is focused on being the perfect political wife, while Harper’s oddball sister Jane (Mary Holland, who is also the co-writer) is an aspiring author desperate to be needed. There’s an interesting energy when Abby enters the house, and while Harper’s family is mostly kind to her, she cannot help but to feel hurt when she’s pushed to the sidelines as they do things like take family photos without her.
While Abby tries to make sense of things after having to give up her romantic proposal plans, Harper faces some ghosts from her past, including Riley (Aubrey Plaza), her best friend growing up who was actually her secret girlfriend before Harper broke her heart and embarrassed her front of their whole high school. Like Abby, Riley is impossibly cool. Unlike Harper, she is comfortable in her own skin and openly gay, and Abby soon finds herself drawn to her. In a lot of ways, Abby and Riley make more sense together than Abby and Harper, and Stewart and Plaza have great chemistry on screen.
While Abby hangs out with Riley, Harper catches up with some high school friends, including Connor (Jake McDorman), her ex-boyfriend. Early on, Tipper and Ted ambush Harper by inviting Connor to dinner without asking her, and DuVall seems to want the viewer to believe that Connor poses a real threat to her and Abby’s relationship. Despite her hang-ups, Harper seems way beyond wanting to be with him (or any man), and the real issue is her inability to tell her parents the truth and set boundaries.
Things are further complicated by the arrival of Harper’s high-strung sister Sloane (Alison Brie) and her family. Sloane and her husband Eric (Burl Mosely) have given up their lucrative law careers in order to start their own gift basket business, and some of the funniest jokes in the film revolve around this and how pretentious Sloane is about the whole thing.
But the supporting character who really steals the show is John, Abby’s gay best friend played by the always hilarious Dan Levy. While Abby is away with Harper, John watches her pets, accidentally kills her fish and unleashes advice to her over the phone. Tipper and Ted’s annual holiday party heats up after John shows up unannounced and lets Tipper think that he’s Abby’s ex-boyfriend.
Even though there is no denying that homophobia is alive and well in America, it still feels like a stretch that a mayoral candidate in 2020 would lose a race soley due to his adult child being gay, even in a red town. As it would be difficult for Harper’s parents to be both likable and raging homophobes, Ana Gasteyer plays the villain, a bigotted donor who Ted must kowtow to in order to secure campaign funding. Everything comes to a head at the Christmas party. As DuVall has a lot of fun putting the film’s characters in uncomfortable situations, we’re reminded just how easily curtains can be pulled back and resentful feelings can bubble to the surface when families come together for the holidays. This being a rom-com, everything gets tied up with a bow, and most will come away from “Happiest Season” ready to take on the holidays and their own families.
“Happiest Season” begins streaming Nov. 25 on Hulu.