‘Happiest Season’ Review: Christmas Cheer and Awkward Family Dynamics

User Rating: 8

Christmas is a lot of pressure, you guys. We build it up into this one magical day packed with family and holiday cheer and the perfect presents, and honestly, that’s a lot to live up to. Happiest Season gives us a little more down-to-earth interpretation of the holiday, with all the warmth of a traditional Christmas romantic comedy as well as an honest portrayal of some very complicated family dynamics. And although perhaps one day we’ll get a Christmas LGBTQ rom-com that doesn’t use a coming-out story as the driver of its narrative conflict, Happiest Season is a more than satisfying addition to the genre with a genuinely thoughtful take on what it means to live authentically. And in a year when most of our Christmas plans are significantly more intimate than usual, it serves as a perfect balm for the holiday blues.

Abby (Kristen Stewart) isn’t exactly what you might call a Christmas person. But her girlfriend, Harper (Mackenzie Davis), loves the holiday, and when she invites Abby along to celebrate Christmas with her family, she agrees. As the visit approaches, she gets more excited about the idea, so much so that she brings an engagement ring along, planning on proposing to Harper during the holidays. But there’s just one problem, which Abby becomes aware of while in the process of driving to Harper’s family’s house: they don’t know Abby is Harper’s girlfriend. And what’s more, they don’t even know that their daughter is gay.

A compromise is reached, one that is virtually guaranteed to fail. Abby will pretend that she is just Harper’s heterosexual roommate, and Harper will tell her parents the truth once the stress of the holidays has passed. Her father (David Morse) is in the midst of a mayoral run, and they need to use this Christmas to present a wholesome, united front as a family, without any distractions. It sounds pretty shady, to be honest, but Abby reluctantly goes along with it. Because nothing says Christmas cheer like having to lie about who you are.

This whole charade goes exactly as well as you might expect. And this part of Happiest Season is a bit of a mixed bag. At its worst, it leans pretty heavily into Meet the Parents style cringe comedy, Harper’s Type A older sister Sloane (Alison Brie), and her borderline demonic children, in particular, broad caricatures. Things get a little broad and overexaggerated, which doesn’t always feel fully in line with the film’s tone.

Because really, its most successful moments are quiet. Aubrey Plaza is outstanding as Harper’s acerbic yet somehow warm ex-girlfriend, who lends a comforting shoulder to lean on as Abby struggles to come to terms with how different Harper is when she’s around her family. Dan Levy is, as always, a pure gem. He is Abby’s light in the storm, gently (and occasionally not-so-gently) guiding her as she struggles with someone she loves, essentially forcing her back into the closet and denying her identity.

Mary Holland initially seems over the top as the family’s black sheep, the delightfully eccentric third sister who has only managed to escape her childhood without serious emotional damage because her parents gave up on her at an early age. But her performance yields a genuinely cathartic character arc. And Kristen Stewart’s tendency for understated delivery serves her well here: she plays Abby as someone who keeps their emotions in check and is willing to put up with a lot, so when she reaches a breaking point, it’s all the more effective.

MacKenzie Davis really has the most difficult job here, finding a balance between Harper’s two identities while trying to make the audience not hate her. There are moments when she seems like she’s behaving in a completely unforgivable way, but then something she does gives us a rush of empathy, and we’re reminded that she’s just a person trying to do the best she can. What’s nice about Happiest Season is how hesitant it is to pass judgment on any of its characters, even when they clearly make mistakes. It’s a good lesson perfectly timed for the holiday season, that everyone’s experiences with their family are complicated and unique, and sometimes we need to make allowances for their behavior. At the same time, we shouldn’t sacrifice our own emotional health to accommodate.

Really, Happiest Season has just about everything required to give audiences the warm fuzzies as we head into a particularly dark holiday season. Director Clea Duvall gives us a gentle, loving romantic comedy that doesn’t shy away from heavier topics but also doesn’t find itself completely overwhelmed by them. Despite a few clunky moments when it goes for a broad comedy style that it isn’t particularly suited for, Happiest Season is one of the most genuinely charming holiday romantic comedies to hit our screens in quite some time.

Written by
Audrey Fox has been an entertainment journalist since 2014, specializing in film and television. She has written for Awards Circuit, Jumpcut Online, Crooked Marquee, We Are the Mutants, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic. Audrey is firm in her belief that Harold Lloyd is the premier silent film comedian, Sky High is the greatest superhero movie ever made, Mad Men's "The Suitcase" is the single best episode of television to date, and no one in the world has ever given Anton Walbrook enough credit for his acting work. Her favorite movies include Inglourious Basterds, Some Like It Hot, The Elephant Man, Singin' in the Rain, Jurassic Park, and Back to the Future.

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