‘Happiest Season’ is the Perfect Queer Holiday Love Story to Usher in the Post-Trump Era
Jodie Foster’s rather brilliant 1995 film Home For the Holidays was somewhat shocking in her decision to break with the usual seasonal cheer, and depict the modern family Thanksgiving gathering (this one featuring Robert Downey Jr., Holly Hunter, Dylan McDermott and Clare Danes) in all its glorious dysfunctionality.
But Hulu’s new and emotionally forthright holiday film Happiest Season (streaming as of 11/25) brings it all decisively into the 21st Century, by introducing a “coming out” element to the already towering pile of dysfunction. It starts out cute enough (the season demands cuteness) and pretty enough (it also must be pretty), as lesbian couple Abby and Harper stroll down a Candy Cane Lane of extravagantly lit houses, as part of a tour that also contains a useful (?) factoid about how many people are actually killed by Christmas trees every year (apparently it’s four).
The pair are played with a charmingly quirky chemistry by Kristen Stewart (Abby) and the very tall MacKenzie Davis (Harper), as part of an all star cast that also includes Aubrey Plaza, Mary Steenburgen, Schitt’s Creek‘s Daniel Levy, and SNL alum Ana Gasteyer. The film was written and directed by Clea DuVail.
Harper is trying and failing to rouse her partner up to her own level of holiday cheer; but then the frisson of getting caught climbing onto someone’s roof to catch a view sparks a fevered bout of snogging, and a spontaneous, soon-to-be-disastrous invitation to meet her parents over a Christmas stay is proffered. The rub? Harper’s family does not know of her sexual orientation—and their obsession with presenting a “proper” image to their haughty circle of friends and associates won’t allow for such…deviations from the established script.
It’s picturesquely filmed in Pittsburgh, which gives it a little buzz of the hipsteriffic, as Steel City is currently high on the destination “it” list.
While strolling one of its trendy looking shopping streets, Abby informs pal John (Levy, being campily hilarious) that she is going to propose to Harper, and will even ask her father’s permission. He sneeringly retorts, “Ask her dad for his blessing? Way to stick it to the patriarchy.” Zing.
As the couple drive on to meet the ‘rents, Abby is rambling on excitedly, while Harper’s eyes bulge with fear—now fully realizing the dreadful mistake she has made.
She spills, “Do you remember this summer when I came out to my parents and they took it really well? That wasn’t entirely accurate.” Uh oh.
You see, dad (Victor Garber) is running for mayor, and has to duly impress a very conservative donor (Gasteyer). As Harper pleads with Abby to go along with the lie that they’re just roommates, the story suddenly turns very real. Davis truly and vividly conveys the genuine terror that so many face in making the decision to come out…or not.
They arrive at last and are greeted by a family that is so beyond bonkers it seems almost unfair—DuVail might have given them at least a few hints of normality. But the overreaching, meddlesome sister Jane (Mary Holland) comes blaring into her first scene with an insufferable kookiness, though she is utterly in earnest, and totally well-meaning.
But Steenburgen’s mom Tipper—haha…Tipper—is a tsunami of manipulation and scheming passive (very) aggressiveness. To wit, when she insists to Abby that her basement guest bedroom at their house must at least be more comfortable than an orphanage, the reply comes, “I wasn’t in an orphanage, I was nineteen when my parents died.”
“Oh, one of the lucky ones,” Tipper answers, in her cringingly clueless way.
The little nightmares begin to pile up when the family ventures out for a lavish holiday dinner, and Abby, the ninth wheel, gets stuck in a kiddie chair. Tipper has also thoughtlessly invited along Harper’s hunky ex-boyfriend, so the diminutive seat becomes a metaphor for Abby’s diminished social status in this impossibly uncomfortable scene.
Yet another sister, Sloane (Alison Brie), is in a “fashionably” mixed race marriage, which comes complete with the obligatory spoiled children named—naturally—Mathilda and Magnus. At breakfast Harper gets off the film’s best zinger: “Snowman pancakes? That’s a lot of work for something that’s just going to turn to shit. Kind of like your law degree.” Ouch.
Later, explaining what she and hubby Eric (Burl Moseley) set aside their law careers for, Sloane pretentiously elucidates to Abby: “We create curated gift experiences, inside of handmade reclaimed wood vessels. Goop picked us up, and sales have been through the roof ever since.” Seriously, what could be more impressive than that?
It just gets wickeder and snipier from there, and sorry, but it’s actually smarter, funnier and far more incisive about the frailty of human relationships than Fleabag ever was. (The latter’s characters ever so short on pathos, and always so long on self-pity.)
The rest of the film sort of mercilessly but sensitively fleshes out the torment and frustration of being forced to keep very serious secrets from those you love. Harper and Abby’s relationship takes an expected but heartbreaking thrashing. And Aubrey Plaza shines as the former’s ex Riley, who intervenes with some desperately needed empathy and wisdom.
But for all his endearing goofiness, the film’s most poignant, tearjerking moment goes to Levy’s (gay) John, who tells Abby, “My dad kicked me out of the house and didn’t talk to me for thirteen years after I told him. Everybody’s story is different. But the one thing that all of those stories have in common, is that moment right before you say those words. When your heart is racing and you don’t know what’s coming next. And once you say those words, you can’t unsay them.”
The excruciating reckoning towards the end of Happiest Season, however, is almost too brutal, and startlingly violent for a film like this. It actually sort of leaves the viewer aching for a happy Hallmark holiday ending.
Yet considering we’ve just survived a harrowing election upon which the future of LGBTQ rights in America very much hinged, this is surely the most exigent, and enlightening film of this holiday season. Your gift for watching will be one of a considerably better understanding of just how painful and difficult it still is in 2020 to be different.
Have yourself a merry…