For what is, effectively, a Christmas rom-com, Happiest Season had quite a lot resting on its shoulders. The Kristen Stewart-starring holiday fare had to be more than just a feel-good Christmas flick.
It, like many other films that seek to shift paradigms and challenge taboos of what we deem to be 'normal', needed to exceed expectations, no matter how extraordinary those expectations were. Thankfully for director Clea DuVall, Happiest Season is everything it promised it would be.
There are always going to be scrooges out there – those who believe that love, families, and humanity are only meant to look one way. They're the kind of people who angrily tweet about supermarket holiday ads and complain to Ofcom about reality TV talent competitions.
What Happiest Season does is ignore those voices entirely, and that's what makes it great. It's a movie that knows its audience and its potential detractors, but doesn't worry about them.
We begin the film with happily-in-love couple Abby and Harper. The former (played by Stewart) isn't a grinch per se but after her parents died ten years previously, Christmas lost a bit of its magic for her. Harper, overwhelmed with holiday spirit, invites Abby to spend five days with her family over Christmas.
The catch? Harper hasn't come out and her whole family thinks Abby is her orphaned friend and flatmate. The hilarity and heartbreak begin here.
There is something to be said for not making movies about LGBTQ+ pain – for focussing a romantic story on simply being in love rather than the stressful and often deeply traumatic experience of coming out. That can be true while also allowing Happiest Season to be measured on its own merits.
What Happiest Season does best in this endeavour, exploring coming out at one of the most pressure-packed times of year, is giving the story space to breathe. By setting it over five days, and with stellar supporting characters (Dan Levy and Aubrey Plaza deserve spin-offs of their own), we learn who all these people really are, in their quietest moments and the loudest.
Happiest Season is not a melodramatic pantomime of the whole coming-out-and-meeting-the-family at Christmas experience, but a grounded, realistic one, still sprinkled with holiday magic. Kristen Stewart manages to keep her trademark smouldering energy and rework it into soft, endearing charm.
Mackenzie Davis as Harper is someone you both want to hug and slap (not literally), which is exactly what she's meant to be – someone confused and unsure, hurting people along the way. Not out of malice but out of fear.
What Happiest Season is also about is toxic parenting: how do you grow up into someone who knows how to love themselves, no matter what, when your parents have instilled in you from the beginning that your worth is something quantifiable? It explores this through Harper's sisters, Jane and Sloane (Mary Holland and Alison Brie, respectively) and their tempestuous relationships.
Not everything is tied up quickly in a nice neat bow, but neither is the drama and tension ratcheted to the point of insufferability or worse, predictability. The end is something earned and though forgiveness maybe comes too quickly, it is a Christmas movie after all. We'll allow DuVall a bit of miracle-making.
To make a long review short: watch Happiest Season. It is the best of everything Christmas rom-coms have to offer, and more.
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