Written and directed by Clea Duvall, co-written by Mary Holland, a young woman (Kristen Stewart) with a plan to propose to her girlfriend (Mackenzie Davis) while at her family’s annual holiday party discovers her partner hasn’t yet come out to her conservative parents. Also starring: Dan Levy, Aubrey Plaza, Alison Brie, Mary Steenburgen, Victor Garber, Mary Holland, Jake McDorman and Ana Gasteyer.
It’s likely that if you asked someone to name a gay Christmas film, they wouldn’t be able to think of one because there are so very few of them, and those that there are, are mostly due to supporting characters, rather than leads. In creating this film Clea Duvall has done more than just make an enjoyable 102-minutes for audiences, she’s opening the door to more of them with its success and judging by how great Happiest Season is, more films like this will be on the way.
If you’ve seen any interviews with Kristen Stewart, you’ll have noticed her cool yet incredibly awkward demeanour and this film is the first to cleverly capitalise on it, to create this hugely relatable and lovable charisma to her character, Abby. She’s smart but silly, she’s strong yet becomes intensely vulnerable when she’s put in such a complicated and frustrating situation, it’s a combination that makes her so easy to watch and entirely sympathetic. Pairing her with Mackenzie Davis was a somewhat surprising choice, you wouldn’t immediately guess that the two of them would make a good couple but it certainly works, though there isn’t a blazing chemistry between them, it’s more sweet and gentle. What’s more surprising is that Stewart has a wonderful chemistry with Aubrey Plaza, their scenes together are a joy to watch, they build such an effortless friendship in this short amount of time that you can only hope they’ll do more projects together. You can’t go wrong casting Dan Levy, he’s hilarious and sharp, he lights up the screen and his comedic timing is perfection, his character is an interesting way to address an utterly modern, political correctness, it doesn’t relegate that to the women characters as other films likely would.
The casting certainly hit the right points for Harper’s (Davis) family, to create an uptight, Republican time bomb of repressed emotions and one black sheep. Starting with her parents played by Mary Steenburgen and Victor Garber, they both give unsurprisingly good performances, they’re both dependable actors and Steenburgen is always great at adding an accidentally comedic edge to more buttoned up characters. Then there’s Alison Brie as her sister Sloane, she doesn’t quite get the opportunity to break out her usual comedic chops but her competitive edge with Harper is delightfully biting. Lastly, there’s Mary Holland as the odd one out Jane, who constantly just wants to be included, is passionate about crafts and overly eager, it’s a fantastic performance that’s entirely silly and bursting with unrelenting energy.
There’s an expected element to Christmas films that can either work in its favour or undermine the entire thing and that’s the cheesy factor, you can’t have a holiday film without some level of it and this film hits it right on the money by opening with hand-drawn scenes, that are so lovingly cheesy, it’s a perfect Christmas set up. Although it goes the extra mile to reach that peak holiday theme when it includes a brief sing along. Hitting the tone and familiar aspects of Christmas films is something they do extremely well, particularly with the humour, while some of it is of a much more modern tone, there’s plenty of simple or physical comedy that harks back to the films you know and love. Its writing leans into the awkwardness and sentimentality of it but what’s really brilliant about it is how it handles the heart of the story, Harper’s fear of coming out and the uncomfortable, hurtful situation that it puts Abby in. It takes into account that every person’s coming out experience is different and that it’s incredibly complicated, it’s refreshing to see it handled in this atmosphere, it’s not grim or depressing but it’s serious enough to get the right tone across while remaining in the realm of romance and comedy.
Duvall’s direction does well to balance those dramatic and comedic themes, there are moments where she very clearly changes the style to reflect the energy of the story; particularly in a scene which moves from a drag bar to a regular bar, switching from a community, friendly, positive feel to cold, commercial and loud, it hammers through Abby’s emotions in that moment. The style is consistent throughout, it’s wholesome and warm, it keeps its sense of fun while bringing through tangible emotions.
Happiest Season is charming, sweet, funny, heartfelt and just plain delightful, it’s a film where you immediately know you want to watch it again because it leaves you with a full heart and a festive spirit. It’s an incredible cast, they all work together brilliantly and it feels very much an ensemble film rather than simply about the lead couple, it gives Kristen Stewart a comedy role with plenty of drama to get her teeth into and she gives the perfect performance, while Plaza, Levy and Holland are all superb support. It’s the ideal film to kick off your festive watching.