I would like to begin with a disclaimer: I don’t really like cheesy Christmas movies. I love other Christmas movies, and I love rom-coms any other time of the year, but sappy, Hallmark-y, jingle jangle holly jolly Christmas movies? Not a huge fan. More often than not, they feel shoddily cobbled together with some tinsel thrown on top. I’d rather watch “Elf.”
Watching “Happiest Season,” however, has given me a ray of hope in a world of vapid Christmas rom-coms. Directed and co-written (semi-autobiographically) by actor Clea DuVall (“Argo”), the film follows couple Abby (Kristen Stewart, “Charlie’s Angels”) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis, “Halt and Catch Fire”) as they join Mackenzie’s family for Christmas. The catch: Harper hasn’t told her family that she’s gay, and they don’t know that Abby is her girlfriend.
Like most people in the process of coming out, Harper’s fears stem from not knowing what her family’s reaction will be. She grew up in a picture-perfect house — literally, as Harper’s mother Tipper (Mary Steenburgen, “Last Vegas”) is constantly taking pictures with her tablet. Her father Ted (Victor Garber, “Alias”) is running for mayor, her sister Sloane (Alison Brie, “GLOW”) is an overachiever with a perfect family, and even Harper has been raised with the expectation of perfection — but despite the shiny exterior, their family is a mess. Harper and Sloane have a destructive rivalry while their other sister Jane, played by Mary Holland (“Between Two Ferns: The Movie”), who co-wrote the film with DuVall, is consistently the butt of the jokes. And when Tipper and Ted refer to the sexuality of Harper’s ex Riley (Aubrey Plaza, “Ingrid Goes West”) as a “lifestyle choice,” well, it’s no wonder Harper’s afraid to tell her parents that she’s gay.
Though its core conflict centers on Harper’s fear of coming out, “Happiest Season” has a lot of layers. On one level, there is the typical holiday rom-com vibe: a soundtrack of merry and bright music, a scene with kooky mall police, chaotic hijinks, dysfunctional families, quick reconciliations just in time for the holidays, etc. There are excellent characters: Abby’s friend John, played by the ever-delightful Dan Levy (“Schitt’s Creek”), is a particular highlight of the film, delivering hilarious zingers and poignant advice with equal ease. There’s the story of Abby and Harper, a loving couple who seem to be just perfect for each other.
But there’s also a centralized understanding of Abby’s neglect: She’s clearly hurt every time she’s introduced as “Harper’s friend” or asked to take family photos instead of being in them. Watching Harper struggle with believing that her very identity doesn’t fit into her family’s ideal is heartbreaking, and watching Abby wade through a week of Christmas parties and fancy dinners pretending to be Harper’s “orphan friend” is painful. In a world of magnificent houses and dainty pearls, they just don’t seem to fit in.
There is a lot to love in “Happiest Season” — the incredible cast, for one — but its strength lies in its emotional depth. The moments where the film tries to come off as breezy are when it falters: Coming out is a heavy theme, and trying to inject it with a Hallmark vibe doesn’t always come across well. And yet those textbook Christmas rom-com moments place the film as part of a genre that desperately needs to be diversified; by placing this film around Christmas, a holiday often associated with conservative values, it crucially works to normalize queer identities and relationships (beyond a stereotypical gay best friend) in a society and industry that tends to ignore them. That said, the moments where “Happiest Season” embraces its emotional aspects are the moments where it shines, such as a point near the end where John delivers a speech to Abby that is so beautiful and so moving that I went back and watched it again.
A lot of LGBTQ+ media is focused on the process of coming out — “Love, Simon” and that one particularly poignant episode of “Schitt’s Creek” (season five, episode 11) are the first that come to mind, but there are many more. There is a reason for this: Whether you will need to have one of these conversations in your life or not, everyone, I think, can understand the emotion that comes with coming out. Coming out is a process that is unique to the LGBTQ+ community solely because heteronormativity is so pervasive in society; nowhere else do you have to reveal a key facet of your identity to everyone you meet. With “Happiest Season,” it’s fascinating how a character like Harper is difficult to like at times as she digs herself into holes and disregards Abby’s emotions to the point of selfishness. But at the same time, whether you’ve had to come out or not, taking the time to consider and really empathize with that experience is enough to make the tears flow.
I think what’s most important about this film is that it exists. It exists in a genre that is overwhelmingly heteronormative and acknowledges a crucial facet of LGBTQ+ life that people who are cisgender and heterosexual will never have to deal with. And the fact that “Happiest Season” is sweet and funny and smart only strengthens its position as a film we need right now. We need more films like “Happiest Season” in the Christmas canon, not only because of representation, but because of the way it brings joy and tears in a way that most Christmas rom-coms don’t even come close to.
Daily Arts Writer Kari Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.