‘Tis the season for Christmas rom-coms! I can’t say this is my favorite type of pastime to partake in, but movies of this genre come out this time every year and are an art form in and of themselves. A new 2020 film that seems to be something different in the monotonous landscape of holiday romantic comedies is Happiest Season, a story of concealed identity and dealing with disagreeable family members starring Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis among many others. This movie is already different because of its LGBTQ representation built into the plot; the film is about coming out to a family that may not accept you, and this serious plot in a light-hearted rom-com is not something to scoff at. However, Happiest Season still somehow never rises above the typical rom-com cliches that define the genre, and it contains some character decisions that impede the powerful point it could have hit home. This never stops it from being a fun and often hilarious romantic comedy with some memorable supporting performances and a unique premise, but I feel that given the potential of the narrative, it could have been a bit more.
Abby (Stewart) and Harper (Davis) are a couple who have been together just over a year and are deeply in love. For Christmas they want to do something special and since Abby has never met Harper’s parents, they think it is the perfect excuse to finally make ends meet. But, of course, there’s a major catch. Harper’s family not only does not know that she is gay, but they don’t know that Abby is her girlfriend. To her displeasure, Abby has to pretend to be Harper’s roommate and must warm up to the family so they can eventually break the news. Along with the fact that Abby was planning to propose, this Christmas definitely does not go as planned.
While Stewart and Davis are both charming and funny throughout this film, I felt that the highlights were many of the supporting performances, especially Daniel Levy and Mary Holland. Levy plays the typical gay best friend, but his performance is so hilarious and heartfelt that he ends up becoming the heart and soul of the entire movie. He gives a speech near the end that embodies everything Happiest Season is trying to be, and his delivery makes the scene and the movie as a whole that much better. This movie makes me want to go see Schitt’s Creek, which is near the top of my list of TV shows to watch. Holland is also hilarious as Harper’s sister who is ignored by the rest of the family and who is eager to prove herself. I have never seen Holland in anything before (to my knowledge), but her comedic timing is perfect and she is an excellent choice for this role. There are other welcome additions to the cast who do a good job as well — veteran actress Mary Steenburgen as Harper’s mom and Aubrey Plaza as Harper’s ex-girlfriend are two worthy mentions — and the cast as a whole is a definite highlight.
For the first ten to fifteen minutes, where the movie had yet to get to the family, I was honestly not too into the humor of the movie. It was when they got to the parents’ house and started mingling with the extended family where Happiest Season thrives and where it is the most enjoyable. Seeing every member of the ensemble cast play off of each other is tons of fun, and I felt that the dramatic tension was the most potent with the other members of the family. The main reason that Harper is so afraid to tell her family about her sexuality is both because they are so traditional and close-minded and because they want a perfect model family with no complications. The dynamic between the ideal family and the struggle to fit in is one in which many LGBTQ people across the country have to deal with, and I felt this focus was what made the movie a cut above many other rom-coms of the same type.
Unfortunately, this focus is often sidelined for the relationship problems Harper and Abby are having during the course of the Christmas visit, and I felt this often distracted from the better messages of the movie. Happiest Season goes the typical route of a romantic comedy in the second half and puts a wedge in the main relationship before the conclusion. The writers make Harper lie quite often to everyone else in her life in order to create conflict, and they rely on it so often that I quite disliked her character by the end of the film. I understand that she needed to mask her identity in order for her parents to accept her, and while this is an insanely difficult thing for anyone to endure, this isn’t an excuse to make her a bad person. The movie goes too far in asking us to dislike her actions, so when it inevitably asks us to forgive her, it was difficult for me to do so. In the end, if they had focused on the family dynamics instead of the cracks in the main relationship, then the movie would have hit home far more.
Happiest Season is definitely still worth the watch though, and many who can relate to the personal story this movie is telling will likely find more worth in its unique depiction than anyone who takes this plot for granted. This is a lighthearted movie about a tough subject, and for the most part it tackles both facets of its identity very well. Given the subject matter, Happiest Season could have excelled far more at blowing expectations out of the water than the plot description implied it would have. I find movies like Love, Simon or The Half of It are far better at handling this tough topic within the confines of a comedy. However, nothing ever stops it from being a fun rom-com worthy of praise, and if that is all one is looking for then this is yet another great choice from Hulu.
I give Happiest Season a B-.