December 22, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Clea DuVall
Culture Representation: Taking place in the Pittsburg area, the romantic comedy “Happiest Season” features a predominantly white cast (with some African Americans and Asians) representing the middle-class and upper-middle-class.
Culture Clash: A closeted lesbian invites her live-in girlfriend to a family Christmas gathering, and the girlfriends agree to keep their romance a secret from the family during this visit.
Culture Audience: “Happiest Season” will appeal primarily to people interested in seeing a Christmas-themed comedy about families where the central couple happens to be members of the LGBTQ community.
There’s a certain formula that romantic comedy films have when they take place during the Christmas holidays and much of the plot revolves around a family get-together: Siblings have rivalries, couples have relationship problems, and at least one person in the family has a big secret that they’re desperately trying to hide. “Happiest Season” (directed by Clea DuVall) follows a lot of the same formula, except that it’s a rare Christmas-themed movie that has lesbians as the central couple in the story. Sony Pictures Entertainment’s TriStar Pictures was going to release “Happiest Season” in theaters until the company sold the movie to Hulu.
In “Happiest Season,” which takes place in the Pittsburgh area, the big secret is that one of the women in the lesbian couple still hasn’t told her family that she’s a lesbian and in a live-in relationship with a woman whom her family thinks is a platonic, heterosexual roommate. Harper Caldwell (played by Mackenzie Davis) is a journalist at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and she’s been living with her girlfriend Abigail “Abby” Holland (played by Kristen Stewart), who is working on getting her Ph. D. in art history at Carnegie-Mellon University. Abby and Harper have been dating each other for a little more than a year and have been living together for the past six months.
Harper and Abby are both in their late 20s, smart and very friendly, but Abby is a little more introverted than Harper is. They have a very loving and respectful relationship, but they come from different family backgrounds. Abby is an only child. Her parents, who died when she was 19, were completely accepting of her sexuality when Abby told them that she’s gay. Harper is the youngest of three sisters, and her parents are very traditional and image-conscious. Harper has been afraid to tell her family that she’s a lesbian because she thinks that her parents will disapprove and reject her.
Harper’s parents Ted Caldwell (played by Victor Garber) and Tipper Caldwell (played by Mary Steenburgen), who live in a suburb of Pittsburgh, raised their children to be over-achievers. And now, Ted (a city councilman) is running for mayor, so Harper becomes even more conscious of the scrutiny that her family will receive because of this political campaign. It’s one of the reasons why Harper wants to delay telling her family about being a lesbian and the true nature of her relationship with Abby.
One evening, Abby and Harper take a romantic stroll during a guided Christmas tour of the neighborhood. Harper impulsively steers Abby on a detour to hop up on a stranger’s rooftop so they can get a romantic view of the city and make out with each other. But the occupants of the house hear people on the roof and almost catch Abby and Harper.
Abby barely escapes when she slips on the rooftop and finds herself hanging from the eaves of the roof. Harper tries to rescue Abby, but Abby falls into an inflatable Santa Claus in the front yard. The two women are able to run off just as the occupants of the house go outside and see the two intruders. This slapstick moment is a foreshadowing of some of the wacky-but-predictable physical comedy that happens in other scenes in the movie.
After this rooftop misadventure, Harper invites Abby to meet Harper’s family for the first time during the Christmas holidays. They plan to stay at Ted and Tipper’s family home for five days. Even though Abby says that she’s “not much of a Christmas person,” she agrees to the visit because she wants to meet Harper’s family.
Abby had committed to pet sitting for some friends during this period of time, so she has to find someone who can substitute for her on short notice. She enlists the help of her openly gay best friend John (played by Dan Levy), who is a literary agent. He agrees to take on the responsibility of pet sitting while Abby goes on this family visit that will be a turning point in her relationship with Harper.
John is somewhat stereotypical of a sassy and flamboyant gay man who usually has the role of a “tell it like it is” sidekick. However, John is also a confidant who has a lot of compassion and knows the true meaning of loyalty in a friend. Abby is going to need it, considering what she goes through in this story.
Abby tells John a secret: She plans to propose to Harper during this family holiday visit. John is skeptical of marriage, which he calls an “archaic institution,” but he’s happy for Abby and he wants the best for her. Abby explains to John why she wants to marry Harper: “It’s not about owning [her]. It’s about building a life with her.”
During Harper and Abby’s car trip to Ted and Tipper Caldwell’s home, Harper finally confesses to Abby that she’s been lying to her about what Harper’s family knows about Harper’s sexuality. Harper tells a shocked Abby that not only is her family unaware that Harper is a lesbian who’s been dating Abby, the family also doesn’t know that Abby is a lesbian too. As far as Harper’s family knows, Harper and Abby are two heterosexual women who are platonic roommates.
At first, Abby wants to back out of the trip, but Harper convinces her not to because she promises Abby that she will tell her family the whole truth after the holiday season and after the mayoral election. Harper says that she couldn’t live with the guilt if she thought her father would lose the election simply because some people wouldn’t vote for a mayor who has a child from the LGBTQ community. It’s fairly obvious that the city where Ted wants to become mayor has a lot of politically conservative voters.
At the Caldwell family home, Abby meets Ted and Tipper (who is obsessed with getting perfect photos for her Instagram account), who are somewhat condescending to Abby. They repeatedly call her “the orphan” and show gushing sympathy to her, as if she’s a little lost child. And because Tipper doesn’t know that Abby and Harper are sleeping together, Tipper tells Abby that she will be staying in a separate bedroom, which predictably leads to a few scenes of Abby and Harper sneaking into each other’s bedroom and trying not to get caught.
Ted is consumed with his mayoral campaign. One of his goals is to get the endorsement of a high-powered and influential donor named Harry Levin (played by Ana Gasteyer), who gives the impression of being a rich snob. One of the people who works with Ted in his campaign is Carolyn McCoy (played by Sarayu Blue), who is described as super-efficient and someone who is very concerned about the image projected by Ted and his family.
Because Ted and Tipper have had high expectations for their children, it’s created a fierce rivalry between Harper and her oldest sister Sloane (played by Alison Brie), who has inherited her parents’ fixation on presenting an image of having a perfect life. Sloane and her husband Eric (played by Burl Moseley) have twins who are about 7 or 8 years old: son Magnus (played by Anis N’Dobe) and daughter Matilda (played by Asiyih N’Dobe), who live such a regimented life, they come across almost like little robots.
Sloane and Eric used to be high-powered attorneys, but they gave up their jobs in the legal profession to make gift baskets for a living. However, pretentious Sloane refuses to call them gift baskets. Instead she uses this description when talking about her and Eric’s job to Abby: “We create curated gift experiences inside handmade, reclaimed wood vessels.” She also brags that Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle website Goop “picked us up and sales have been through the roof ever since.”
Harper’s other sister is Jane (played by Mary Holland, who co-wrote the “Happiest Season” screenplay with director DuVall), who has a bubbly personality but is somewhat nerdy and socially awkward. Jane, who is single with no children, has been working on a sci-fi fantasy novel for the past 10 years. Although it’s not said out loud, Ted and Tipper think of Jane as the “disappointing” child because she’s not as accomplished as her two sisters are and she has a tendency to be clumsy. Her parents think that Jane is handy when it comes to figuring out computer problems and Internet access in the house, but that’s about it.
Of course, a romantic comedy about a couple with honesty issues usually has additional complications, such the presence of ex-lovers who might or might not want to rekindle a past romance. In “Happiest Season,” Harper has not one but two people from her dating past who cause discomfort in different ways for her. The appearances of these two exes will have an effect on Abby too.
First is Harper’s ex-boyfriend Connor (played by Jake McDorman), whom Harper dated when she was in college. Connor doesn’t know that Harper broke up with him because she’s a lesbian, and he still has lingering feelings for her. Harper’s other ex who comes into the picture is a doctor named Riley (played by Aubrey Plaza), who was Harper’s first girlfriend when they were in high school together. Harper and Riley’s breakup, which is described in the movie, was very painful and it set the pattern of Harper being dishonest about her true sexuality to most of the people in her life.
And what do you know, both of these exes just happen to be at the same restaurant at the same time when the Caldwells and Abby are there for a family dinner. Connor was secretly invited by Tipper, who wishes that Harper and Connor would get back together. Riley is at the restaurant by sheer coincidence. Riley and Connor end up in other social situations with Harper and Abby, together and separately. And, as expected, Abby is jealous of Connor, while Harper gets uncomfortable when she sees Abby and Riley becoming friendly with each other.
Except for the lesbian aspects of the movie, “Happiest Season” doesn’t do much that’s different from a lot of predictable romantic comedies. There’s some over-the-top slapstick in the movie that might or might nor be amusing to viewers. This type of cheesy physical comedy somewhat lowers the quality of the movie, but it’s nothing that’s too detrimental to the story.
The romance between Harper and Abby is convincing, with Davis and Stewart handling their roles with great aplomb. Abby’s character is written with more realism and grace than Harper’s character, who is very selfish and immature during some pivotal moments in the story. Some of the best scenes in the film are those between Abby and John, as well as Abby and Riley.
“Happiest Season” works best when it touches on issues about the true meaning of family and the cost of living a lie. The movie doesn’t have any heavy-handed preaching though, and there are plenty of comical scenarios to balance out the more emotionally dramatic moments. “Happiest Season” isn’t an exceptionally well-made romantic comedy, but it has enough charm and entertaining performances to please viewers who like sentimentality with some slapstick.
Hulu premiered “Happiest Season” on November 25, 2020.