Gay people have many movies to call their own but not a Christmas movie. When you consider that Lifetime, Hallmark, and Netflix put out about 70,000 such films every November, it seems incredible that only this year have they started making holiday entries aimed at gays. The cable and streaming channels dawdled so long that a major Hollywood studio has nipped them at the line with Happiest Season, which has a lesbian director and a charismatic gay star. Queering such a hoary and traditionalist genre is a radical move that only works if Happiest Season is actually funny. I’m delighted to say that in this barren year for comedy films, this is one of the funniest things I’ve seen.
Kristen Stewart plays Abby, a doctoral candidate at Carnegie Mellon University who used to hate Christmas until she fell hard for Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Harper (Mackenzie Davis) at a holiday party. A year later, when Harper impulsively invites her along to her wealthy parents’ small-town home for the festive season, Abby secretly buys an engagement ring and plans to pop the question while they’re there. Then Harper confesses that she hasn’t come out to her family, nor is she ready to. Cue several days of everyone pretending to be hetero and Abby observing different sides of her girlfriend in her uptight, hyper-competitive household.
I do wish the script had done a little more with Harper’s dad running for public office on a family values platform, but the farce’s premise is enough that it doesn’t have to take on too much besides the funny bits. It’s always encouraging when the little throwaway gags around the edges of the story raise a laugh. During the film’s opening, we get a light display guide going dark and morbid on her tour group and Abby and Harper catching another couple in some kinky Christmas cosplay. Director Clea DuVall and her writing partner Mary Holland (they acted together on TV’s Veep) mine some rich stuff from the family dysfunction that Abby is stepping into, as Harper’s parents (Victor Garber and Mary Steenburgen) overtly treat her as their favorite child, much to the displeasure of oldest sister Sloane (Alison Brie), who owns a Goop-endorsed gifting service. The domestic drama provides a framework for the hijinks here, which include a scene-stealing turn from Holland herself as Jane, Harper’s overeager sister whom everyone ignores.
The life of this efficiently paced film is in the little details, like Jane regaling everyone with plot details from the doorstop of a fantasy-adventure epic she has spent the last 10 years writing or Harper’s ex-boyfriend (Jake McDorman) showing up unannounced everywhere because her parents are transparently trying to set her up with him. This cast is stacked, and you know a comedy is going good when the laughs come from nine or 10 actors deep. I haven’t even mentioned Dan Levy (from TV’s Schitt’s Creek) freshening up a cliché role as Abby’s gay best friend or Aubrey Plaza as Harper’s ex and the one out lesbian in town with whom Abby quickly bonds, because nothing’s more lesbian than making friends with your girlfriend’s ex. This movie shows Stewart as a character who’s settled and happy for once (at least until she’s forced back in the closet), and while she’s not known for physical comedy, just watch her pose for a selfie in her bathroom with a toothbrush sticking out of her mouth or backpedaling down a hallway to avoid being caught sneaking into Harper’s bedroom. You know Harper’s secret will be revealed in the most chaotic way possible, but it still manages to be both uproarious and wrenching when it happens.
The film’s final shot is of Abby and Harper blissfully happy as they settle into their seats at a movie theater. This made me sad, because you won’t be seeing it in a theater, since Sony offloaded the film to Hulu last month. I understand the studio’s decision — it’s not as if you could release this movie in the spring. Even so, Happiest Season is a historic achievement (something I don’t say lightly), and the experience of taking it in with a crowd and being surrounded by their laughter would have meant something. This ruthless plague around us has taken that away, much as it has taken away big family gatherings like the one that the film depicts. Nothing will replace that this holiday season, but having this film, and having it be good, is a big measure of good cheer. Who couldn’t use that this year?
Starring Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis. Directed by Clea DuVall. Written by Clea DuVall and Mary Holland. Rated PG-13.