Happiest Season Review – A Pleasant Delight of a Feelgood Film that Helps Wrap Up a Bad Year


First things first: I don’t like most Christmas movies.

No, I’m not a fan of Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Story, Christmas Vacation, Home Alone, The Santa Clause, Love Actually and especially not The Grinch. Some I can stand more than others, but in general I just don’t love the plain storytelling and all-too-simple answers that these movies come up with to solve problems. Maybe it’s also the cynical Australian in me that doesn’t connect with carolling, skiing, snow days, parades, out-of-town relatives visiting, or anything that American Christmases represent. Australian Christmases are hot, sweaty, salty, hot, insane, sleep-deprived, crowded, and did I mention hot?

It may also just be that the ones I like all have something a little bit more than the simplest answers. It’s a Wonderful Life is an excellent story that only becomes a Christmas movie in the last twenty minutes, Gremlins is a great monster movie, Die Hard is an awesome action flick, Nightmare Before Christmas is a solid musical, Elf is hilarious, and Klaus is wonderfully emotional. They all set out to be something different on film which just so happens to be set around Christmas.

And this is exactly where Clea Duvall’s Happiest Season fits for me.

Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackensie Davis) are in a happy and committed relationship, with Abby hoping to take things a lot further. However, Harper asks her to come meet her parents and family for the Christmas holiday, but they don’t know she’s lesbian. Over the next five days, Abby and Harper’s relationship is strained by Abby feeling left out from Harper’s family and Harper herself struggling to know when to come out. It’s family Christmas-time awkwardness at its most unbearable and brilliantly done.

First and foremost, Happiest Season has a fantastic cast. Kristen Stewart and Mackensie Davis are completely believable as two people who love one another but do struggle to know how to express that in the right kind of way. Is there even a “right” kind of way? They’re trying to figure it out. Harper’s parents are Victor Garber and Mary Steenburgen, with Garber playing to his type as the rather narrow-minded elite patriarch but Steenburgen turning away from her usual role as the sunny side of things, here she’s neurotic and totally oblivious in a way I thoroughly believed. Mums are like this, or at least mine definitely is around Christmas time.

And then we have Alison Brie as Harper’s chip-on-her-shoulder sister Sloane (who’s essentially Annie from Community but meaner), Mary Holland as the oft-forgotten second sister Jane, Aubrey Plaza becoming a new queer icon as Harper’s ex-girlfriend Riley, with Dan Levy barging in to steal the show any chance he can get as Abby’s best friend John. Above all, it is a wonderful blast to see all these excellent performers clash with one another over and over in the nicest wool-knit jumpers.

The way that writer and director Clea DuVall constructs all of this clenching, ratcheting, torturous tension amongst these troubled characters is quite remarkable. Even in the happier moments where you feel some real development taking shape, nothing ever feels relieved. It captures that kind of intoxicating, terrifying moment of coming out and stretches it all over the runtime. This is a real, identifiable experience that DuVall crafts quite well and leads to that kind of oh-so-thankful relief in the end that is only enhanced by the Christmas time.

Happiest Season’s title seems ironic, really. The film never pretends that Christmas is this overwhelming magical time that brings out the best in people and every night is filled with candlelit, sweet-smelling joy. Sometimes it’s just cold, awkward, fake, forced, intense, scary, stressful, and just all too much. I felt the reality of this story, even though I’ve never had to experience that moment of coming out to my parents. That is the sign of a good movie, that it can communicate to you an emotion that can resonate with anyone regardless of any identifiable factors.

Is it a bit cliché? Yeah. Does everything get wrapped up in a neat little package that can feel a little too convenient compared to the remarkable reality of the rest of the film? Kinda. Could it have done with a bit more representation to not make it feel so upper-class and white? Certainly. Despite its numerous missteps and conveniences, Happiest Season is a pleasant delight for this Christmas season, and may be that kind of relatable and ultimately feelgood film you need to get through this last month of this horrible year. Do yourself a favour and make a good quadruple feature of the best feelgood films of 2020 with Palm Springs, The Personal History of David Copperfield, Love and Monsters and now Happiest Season. You deserve it!

Director: Clea Duvall

Cast: Kristen Stewart, Mackensie Davis, Aubrey Plaza

Writer: Clea Duvall

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