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Film review: Happiest Season

Halifax • 2020-12-24

Review by Allis Kolynchuk

Happiest Season is cozy, fun and heart-warming romantic comedy that celebrates the universal theme of being true to yourself… with a fabulous amount of holiday sparkle added in. The film allows us to “see the forest for the (Christmas) trees” because viewing it as belonging within the bounds of the classic holiday genre allows queer representation to be provided exactly where it is needed. The film relates to our current community through a decidedly queer or allied cast and recognizable tropes. We are left with a film that seamlessly wraps vintage style into modern themes and gifts queer representation to a genre that desperately welcomes it.

Films within the holiday genre are known for depicting the spiritual growth of Scrooge-like characters who overcome moral short-comings through Christmas magic. In line with these roots, Happiest Season begins by introducing the audience to Abby (Kristen Stewart), who is initially gruff and scrooge-minded towards all things Christmas. That is, until her girlfriend Harper (Mackenzie Davis) suggests that they wake up together on Christmas morning at her family’s home, saying to her partner “If that doesn’t convince you to love Christmas, I’ll never bring it up again”. Abby falls for the idea, and even more for Harper, to whom she hopes to propose to on Christmas day. However, her plans are quickly derailed when it is revealed that Harper’s family may, after all, be the biggest scrooges of all: they are not yet aware of their daughter’s queer identity or of her relationship with Abby. The couple are challenged to navigate the universal struggle we all face when our identity is at odds with our family’s expectations. Will Harper and Abby remain closeted for the holidays, or will Christmas magic sway Harper’s parents to celebrate their daughter for her true self?

Happiest Season shows no shortage of warm and cozy holiday film nostalgia. As if to highlight the intentional contrast between a classic holiday film and modern queer culture, the opening credits show vintage-styled images of holiday cards while the closing credits roll out screencaps from Instagram. Happiest Season pays tribute to themes found in our favourite Hallmark classics as Harper brings Abby back to her quaint, small hometown to meet her wealthy family. Their estate is as luxurious and immaculate as would be expected for an affluent family that is in need of some true, more sentimental Christmas spirit. At least superficially, Harper’s family seems as perfect as the film’s festive set design. Every detail in each scene hails in feelings of holiday cheer. Despite how perfect it all seems, it’s quickly revealed that each of Harper’s siblings has had their share of childhood traumas resulting from an emotionally-distant, though well-intentioned upbringing. It becomes known that Harper’s concealed identity may not, after all, be the family’s only secret. Snow falls outside as the film reaches a climax at the family’s Christmas party. A dramatic show of Christmas magic brings all characters to reach their own conclusions of what true holiday spirit means. The overall lesson is of acceptance and love for one another despite appearances, whether those appearances be material wealth in the case of Harper’s family or the closeted personas that are held by Harper and Abby during their holiday visit. Superficial barriers fade away to make room for the hearts of all characters, each of which grow two sizes by the end of the film. All characters learn to celebrate each other’s true selves within a new light of gratitude.

Happiest Season flawlessly pays homage to all the warm and gooey, cheesy essentials of holiday films while at the same time staying honest to queer culture. There are references to online dating, cat-sitting, challenging the patriarchy… Valuable advice is provided throughout the film for members of our community who may be going through similar challenges to those faced by Abby and Harper. During an emotional scene, Abby questions why her girlfriend is hesitant to come out. She claims “I don’t think she loves me as much as I thought she did”. Her best friend John replies, “Harper not coming out to her parents has nothing to do with you,” one has to be ready, and not come out for anyone but themselves. 

The queer gaze of Happiest Season film is in large part due to the cast members who themselves are known to be members of our community, and thus are able to represent our lived experiences with personal accuracy. Writer and director, Clea Duvall, has a lesbian filmography which spans over twenty years and includes her acting in the cult classic “But I’m a Cheerleader (1999)” and in “The Intervention (2016)”. Kristen Stewart is immediately striking as one of Happiest Season’s most well-known queer icons. The film also boasts a joyous and energized performance by RuPaul Drag Race alums BenDeLaCreme and Jinkx Monsoon in a small-town gay bar. Openly gay actor Victor Garber delivers a contrasting performance as “Ted”, who is Harper’s emotionally-distant Father. Meanwhile Dan Levy shines as “John”, Abby’s flamboyantly gay best friend, because would any holiday genre rom-com be complete without one? Finally, in alignment with our modern community tropes, Happiest Season does well to include Harper’s ever-present ex-girlfriend “Riley” in a prominent way, who is portrayed in the hilariously deadpan-humour style comedy of Aubrey Plaza. The cheerfully gifted cast is rounded by a holiday-themed soundtrack that includes an original song by lesbian artists Tegan and Sara.

Holiday films are a comfort for many of us during the festive season, but it comes as no surprise that queer representation is much needed in this genre. Happiest Season grants this wish. It provides representation while remaining within the bounds of the holiday film genre where it is gladly welcomed. One critique is the narrow perspective of the film’s focus on Christmas alone without a mention of the myriad of other holidays which hold a place near the end of the year. That being said, the universal themes of acceptance and celebration of identity remain relatable despite the overarching theme of Christmas in the film. Happiest Season remains a family-friendly, heart-warming holiday rom-com that leaves your heart feeling full. It’s a joyful outlier in the holiday genre, being a queer film that you can wake up to watch with your loved ones on Christmas morning, or on the morning of whichever holiday you hold dear. As Harper claims, “If that doesn’t convince you to love Christmas, I’ll never bring it up again” Be sure to catch Happiest Season online as a Hulu original film over the holidays.

Happiest Season is available free, here, on (Amazon) Prime Video, and you can watch the trailer here.