Holiday Greetings and Gay Happy Meetings
The queer holiday rom-com isn’t exactly a long tradition, but being a film genre that exists in the world, it has largely been dominated by white cis men. Progress is moving as quickly as it ever does, so a good decade after 2009’s Make the Yuletide Gay and 2011’s Walk a Mile in My Pradas, Happiest Season has come along to give white cis women a seat at the Christmas dinner table.
OK, OK, it’s altogether too easy to be glib about a movie that aims to combine two of cinema’s most endearingly earnest subgenres. Happiest Season does about as much right as it does wrong (and it does a lot wrong), but let’s not trip over ourselves before we even get into the plot.
Christmas-averse Abby (Kristen Stewart) has agreed to visit her girlfriend Harper’s (Mackenzie Davis) family for Christmas. The catch? She never actually came out to them, and Abby must pretend to be her straight roommate. What follows is a comedy of errors and titanically crushing secondhand anxiety, as it becomes clear that Harper’s politician dad (Victor Garber) and controlling mother (Mary Steenburgen) have designs to set her up with her high school ex-boyfriend. Probably because he would look just perfect in their family Christmas photo, alongside uptight Sloane (Alison Brie) and cartoon weirdo Jane (Mary Holland, who co-wrote the film with director Clea DuVall).
There has been a lot of ballyhoo on queer Twitter about the Get Out-ian sociopathy with which Harper treats her girlfriend, and speculation that Abby just might be better paired with hot townie doctor Riley (Aubrey Plaza) or just fucking off altogether and going home with her BFF John (Dan Levy). Personally I think this plot would have been easier to swallow had its protagonists been closer to high school age, reminding viewers of what stupid callous idiots we all were back then. But that’s not the movie we’re getting, and that movie would lack Stewart and Davis, two actresses who should already be permanent fixtures on your “one to watch” list.
Although, come to think of it, I couldn’t point you to a single weak link in the cast. Steenburgen harnesses her natural charm for the role, doling out just enough that you know it’s all a sham, Plaza steers her disaffected monotone into a more nuanced direction, Brie has an enormous amount of fun playing a character who doesn’t know the meaning of the word “fun,” and Holland lobs one sparkling one-liner after another as a character completely unmoored from sanity.
No, the cast is giving us no guff in Happiest Season, it’s just that pesky script. It's stuck in limbo between snarky modern sarcasm and classical family Christmas humor, and as such doesn't throw two jokes in a row that feel tonally linked in any real way. And sometimes that row can streeeeeetch for minutes before another joke comes wandering into line. It's altogether a bit scattershot.
And take Jane. She’s not a stereotype or a stock character, which is nice in theory, but the reason a lot of side roles are stock characters are so the audience can understand their function quickly without distracting from the A-plot. At least those characters are facsimiles of human beings. Jane is an android from outer space whose prime directive is delivering funny gags that untwine the fabric of whatever reality this film ostensibly takes place in. Her heartfelt moment in the third act is performed extremely well, but it would play better if we recognized a single thing about her as a person with interior life beforehand.
At least Abby and Harper have psychological depth, even if peering into Harper's mind might give you a glimpse of gibbering Lovecraftian terror. And as much as people have problems with her (rightfully), I think it's the same way one might have problems with a mirror. She reflects things you might have done in your past that you'd prefer to remain buried, or things that have been done to you. You can do a lot of panic-stricken, horrible things to someone in service of keeping your own secrets. It might not be pretty, but it's pretty true to the experience of being a closeted queer person, in an exaggerated rom-com kind of way.
Altogether, the ingredients don't come together to form a full fruitcake, but who wants one of those anyway? Happiest Season is a confection that goes down easy, delivers a sweet holiday flavor, and leaves room for more filling fare.
Brennan Klein is a millennial who knows way more about 80's slasher movies than he has any right to. You can find his other reviews on his blog Popcorn Culture. Follow him on Twitter, if you feel like it.