While romantic comedies and Christmas movies aren’t always worthy of special attention as, let’s face it, there are more than we can count of both genres that come out year after year, sometimes they can offer something truly noteworthy as is the case for 2020’s “Happiest Season”. This movie is one of the few romantic comedies I actually looked forward to watching as its concept intrigued me from the first moment I heard about it. Directed by Clea DuVall, a member of the LGBTQ community, and starring several LGBTQ actors and actresses, “Happiest Season” tells the story of the holidays from a perspective rarely explored in mainstream films until very recently, the gay experience especially the struggles of coming out. While certainly cliché in its use of romantic comedy formulas, “Happiest Season” makes the most of its premise providing what could be considered a groundbreaking examination of how little lies about ourselves can have negative impacts on those we love especially during the most wonderful time of the year.
“Happiest Season” stars Kristin Stewart and Mackenzie Davis as Abby and Harper respectively, a lesbian couple spending their first Christmas together. Despite her apprehensions Abby decides to tag along to Harper’s holiday family get-together only to discover that Harper has not come out to her conservative parents and sisters yet. Making matters worse Harper’s father is running for mayor creating further conflict with Harper’s secret. As the lovers attempt to maintain their relationship through the holidays and Abby prepares to pop the question, Harper’s struggles with her secret create tension with both Abby and her family making for a hilarious but rocky holiday celebration. While LGBTQ representation is certainly far from anything unique in cinema today, especially in romantic comedies, it hasn’t always been as widely accepted and a lot of the more nuanced themes are reserved for arthouse or specialty cinema offerings. We’ve seen great strides in recent years and while the gay experience is starting to shine through more and more in genre it’s nice to see a romantic comedy film of all things feel so sincere and understanding of the LGBTQ experience, especially with the idea of coming out as its central conflict. “Happiest Season” not only handles the subject matter with tact and understanding, but also avoids taking itself too seriously making for an overall engaging and relatable viewing experience.
“Happiest Season” benefits from a cast and filmmaker who understand the struggles presented in the film. Director and co-writer Clea DuVall is a real-life lesbian while star Kristin Stewart and complimenting performers Aubrey Plaza and Dan Levy are all members of the LGBTQ community. While not the entire cast is part of the gay community, all of them show a profound respect for the struggles being portrayed in the film, particularly Mackenzie Davis who takes on the role of a woman struggling with coming out to her conservative family while trying to avoid coming off the wrong way to her girlfriend, played by Kristin Stewart who herself seems to have a genuine understanding of what this struggle. While they don’t have the most convincing chemistry in the world the two play off each other well showcasing the insecurities they each face from different ends of the gay spectrum, one living openly gay and struggling with her lover’s closeted nature and the other living in the closet trying to find acceptance in her family. This would have made a great dynamic in a normal romantic comedy, but complimented by the Christmas backdrop that uses the season of giving and family togetherness as a catalyst to bring everything to a head adds some genuine heartfelt truth to what these women are going through. I mean what better time of year to implore people to be accepting and love each other for who we are than the holidays?
More importantly I think it presents a pretty neat message that helps it stand out from romantic comedies in general. The overarching theme of “Happiest Season” isn’t just the struggle of coming out, it’s the struggle of lying to yourself and failing to live your truth. We find out as the film progresses that Davis’s Harper is not the only one harboring secrets out of fear of her family’s disapproval and all of these lies result in the inevitable drama that takes place throughout the film and in its third act. “Happiest Season” in many ways attempts to inspire people to be who they are and be open about their heartaches and identities, especially to those we love, otherwise we risk ostracizing and shutting out those who truly care about us and who we are. The theme is explored from so many different angles that it becomes universally relatable even if you can’t identify with the LGBTQ struggle at its core, but it also doesn’t take the easy way out and assume those who live a lie are in the wrong. It makes a real point to show that coming out or anything comparable to such a revelation is a very personal decision, but one that, if left unresolved, can have a ripple effect. We do see how Harper’s struggles to admit her sexuality to her family hurts Abby, but we also see Abby as a little closeminded too failing to fully support her girlfriend in a terrifying moment of her life that isn’t going to be as easy for her as it was for Abby. There’s some very deep exploration of real human experiences in this film that stood out to me as rare moments of sincerity and understanding in a genre usually littered with unrealistic expectations of love.
As I said though “Happiest Season” does all of this without taking itself too seriously. This is, after all, a romantic holiday comedy and while it does depend heavily on a lot of conventions and clichés the cast, crew and director all inject some genuine personality into the flick beyond the drama. The sibling rivalry between Harper and her older sister (Alison Brie) is fun to watch and seeing Abby and Harper try to hide their romantic relationship makes for some fun misunderstandings that got real chuckles out of me. The humor is more reminiscent of basic romantic comedies rather than feeling overpowered with homosexual stereotypes. Everyone feels like real, normal people who happen to be gay and the humor is derived not from the sexual themes but from actual human moments we can relate to on a universal level. To me, it feels like a big step forward further distancing Hollywood from its tendency to provide humor at the expense of the LGBTQ community rather than normalizing them as member of the larger world. This movie shows members of the LGBTQ community as real human individuals within the story rather than punch lines or token characters. With that said though, “Happiest Season” does still heavily lean on a pretty familiar formula present in almost every romantic comedy and thus fails to push the genre forward much in that respect. On the plus side though, the legitimate amount of heart, effective humor and insight it provides helps overpower it’s cliché nature and give it an identity all its own.
“Happiest Season” will likely become a new Christmas classic for me. While I myself am not a member of the LGBTQ community in the traditional sense (I identify as graysexual which is on the asexual spectrum) I thought it perfectly fitting in today’s day and age to have a coming out story explored in such a way. Director Clea DuVall and her cast all seem to truly understand the struggles of the LGBTQ community and the importance and anxiety involved with the coming out experience, especially during the holidays. It’s a movie that had something to say and knew exactly how it had to do it taking familiar formulas we’ve grown to appreciate and building off of them to showcase a story that feels sincere, timely, heartfelt and, most of all, fun when it needs to be. Naysayers will look at this film and see it as propaganda, inappropriate, or pandering, but it never felt like that to me. It’s a reminder that being ourselves and trusting our truths with the ones we love is the only way to live truly free of the binds that hold us back, whether that’s coming out or any other struggle life may throw our way. It’s charming, memorable and, probably most impressive of all, won over a cynic like me who usually sees romantic comedies as low-level entertainment. That alone deserves this high grade.