Romantic comedies are in full bloom during this year’s winter wonderland. Treasured and trite, the holiday rom-com serves cute, cozy fantasies of true love and holiday cheer in a cornucopia of cliches and predictability. In their cookie-cutter construction, however, the genre is deeply narrow in scope and often exclusionary — usually focusing on white people and consistently steeped in heterosexuality.
Director Clea DuVall aspires to rewrite some of these conventions and make the yuletide gay in her new movie “Happiest Season.” DuVall, a proudly out queer filmmaker, cast the iconic Kristen Stewart to pilot the movie. “Happiest Season” also enlists other famous queer actors, such as Dan Levy and Aubrey Plaza, to enliven the supporting — and wonderfully scene-stealing — roles.
Though it masquerades as a feel-good movie, “Happiest Season” ultimately spends most of its bloated duration excavating the sense of trauma and shame that simmers in the pit of one’s stomach when they come out of the closet.
“Happiest Season” centers on a queer couple: Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis). As frustrating as it is disappointing, Stewart and Davis’ characters lack any chemistry — a feat utterly baffling since Stewart’s costuming takes “don we now our gay apparel” fantastically seriously.
In the beginning of “Happiest Season,” Abby agrees to spend Christmas with Harper’s family, and she eagerly anticipates the trip as an opportunity to propose. Stewart leads with charm and sensitivity; the actress usually embraces dramatic roles, so her loosened-up, love-struck performance feels refreshing and grounded.
On the drive to her parents’ house, Harper reveals that her family has no idea she’s a lesbian; she implores Abby to go along with the charade and act as her straight, orphaned roommate during their five-day trip. While she doesn’t want to go back in the closet, Abby understands how coming out can feel terrifying in unsafe, uptight households, and she wants to support her girlfriend.
Harper’s father, Ted (Victor Garber), stands in the thick of a mayoral campaign, and the film doubles down on the notion that his political ambitions are a “family affair.” Nobody can have any skeletons in the closet, so Harper and Abby are trapped there instead.
“Happiest Season” exudes the cheery, wink-wink type of self-awareness — usually in witty ripostes from Abby’s gay best friend John (Levy) — that critiques outdated rom-com tropes while amusedly indulging in them. But despite DuVall’s admirable ambition to reimagine rom-coms for the queer community, “Happiest Season” drowns out holiday cheer with a serious, sobering coming out story.
“Happiest Season” holds potential to pluck the heartstrings in a jolly, festive story about strength and resilience, but Harper just isn’t likable. Throughout the movie, she lacks basic communicative abilities and unfairly flares her temper at Abby — who, on the other hand, bears patience and forgiveness in spades.
Davis, to her credit, tries to play Harper as a well-intentioned but fearful optimist; however, the character’s conversations with Abby feel manipulative. The script uplifts an uncomfortable, toxic relationship, but seems to forgive Harper’s harmful traits by chalking them up to internalized homophobia and childhood trauma. Yet, Harper spends most of the movie ignoring Abby at social events and gaslighting her whenever Abby brings up a valid problem.
Luckily, Abby finds solace during the stressful trip from Plaza’s character Riley, Harper’s high school ex-girlfriend and, frankly, the saving grace of this movie. While Stewart and Davis struggle to find a spark, Stewart and Plaza burn in a bright blaze. DuVall’s camera depicts Riley as a support system for Abby, and the two characters are shown to understand each other on a deeply empathetic level.
Where are the ugly Christmas sweaters? Where’s the eggnog? The mistletoe? The chiming, chipper soundtrack is simply not enough to get this coal-laden sleigh off the ground.
Homophobia is a pervasive and traumatizing reality, and it’s upsetting to hear this reminder from the type of movie that’s supposed to provide an escape from such darkness. What’s the point of a gay rom-com where the couple spends most of the movie in misery pretending they’re not gay?