Cinema Dispatch: Happiest Season

Happiest Season and all the images you see in this review are owned by Hulu

Directed by Clea DuVall

It’s been a while since I’ve sat down and watched a new movie, hasn’t it?  Okay, at THIS point it’s not exactly a new movie as it’s been out for over a week now, but it’s been harder to keep up with what’s coming out and which films are worth seeking which is a far cry from the very structured way I used to do them when they came out in theaters, but we ten months into this nightmare and we all need to find new ways to work with the new normal.  In any case, I heard murmurings about this about a week before it came out which is usually a good sign to check it out, and the premise at least looked like it had SOMETHING worth talking about to separate it from all the other Christmas movies that come out each year.  Now that I’ve finally seen it, does it live up to the modicum of hype it built for itself, or did Hulu trick me into watching something that otherwise should have been on the Hallmark channel sandwiched between A Shoe Addict’s Christmas and Fir Crazy?  Let’s find out!!

Abbey Holland (Kristen Stewart) is in a wonderful relationship with her girlfriend Harper Caldwell (Mackenzie Davis) and after spending the better part of a year together she thinks she’s ready to ask her to marry her!  Fate has other ideas in mind however as it’s Christmas time and on a whim Harper asks her to join her family for Christmas which SEEMS innocuous enough… but just as they’re about to pull into the drive way Harper tells Abbey that her family has NO IDEA she’s a lesbian and that they have to pretend to just be friends.  Seems like a red flag big enough to see from space, but Harper assures her that she’ll tell her parents AFTER Christmas and so Abbey begrudgingly goes along with it.  From there it’s what you’d expect as the family members each have their own eccentricities and barely concealed hatreds for one another which Abbey just sits back and enjoys, but keeping this secret proves to be harder than it looks; especially when Harper’s mom (Mary Steenburgen) tries to set her up with an old boyfriend (Jake McDorman), and her dad (Victor Garber) is a politician which means they are under a microscope whenever they leave the house.  Fortunately there’s a ray of light in this town in the form of Riley (Aubrey Plaza) who was Harper’s first girlfriend and seems to know what Abbey is going through, and if all else fails Abbey’s got a Gay Best FriendTM back home named John (Dan Levy) who’s watching her pets and is always ready to dispense sassy advise when needed!  Can Abbey survive being in this awkward situation, and will her relationship with Harper fall apart in the process?  What is it about her family that has made Harper so paranoid about them finding out she’s a lesbian, and can any of justify what she’s having her girlfriend go through?  Then again, if it’s THIS easy to fool her parents, maybe this is just a warm up to some big heist or something!

“We’re friends!”     “JUST friends!”     “Which is obvious!”     “And a very normal thing to say!”     …     “I think they’re buying it!”

On the one hand, the movie is PRETTY maudlin and very typical of the genre; not exactly trying anything new or doing anything in a particularly creative way.  On the other hand, there are some very solid performances in here and the central conflict, despite playing out as it would in one of these Hallmark-esque Christmas Movies, brings enough to the table for it to stand out in some way.  This is either a decent LGBTQIA+ movie held back by the conventions of the genre it’s working in, or it’s a run of the mill TV movie saved by a central conceit that hasn’t been explored nearly enough in these kinds of films.  Whichever end you decide to start from, you’ll end up in the same place right in the middle by the end.

“I never thought I’d say this, but I think I’d PREFER To watch this on Quibi.”     “Wait, is that still a thing?”     “NOPE!”

If you’ve seen any Christmas movie, you’ve certainly seen what this film has to offer.  Visiting the family, kooky relatives, precocious kids, we’re going through ALL the clichés here, and it’s… fine.  I mean I’ve certainly seen worse and this one doesn’t take itself seriously enough for it to REALLY start to grate, but none of its Christmas themed shenanigans rise above more than a chuckle and the heart is a bit lacking throughout most of the movie.  Really, the only thing that DOES set this apart is the LGBTQIA+ component which seems to be where the filmmakers put the most effort in; both in terms of interesting character dynamics and outright fun set pieces.  The highlight of the whole movie for was the scene of Abby and Riley hanging out a drag show; not just because everyone there is having fun and the singers are doing a rendition of Must Be Santa, but because there’s genuine emotional weight to the conversation as Riley reveals her own troubled history with Harper.  Compare that to scenes like the childish ice skating race, the kids putting a stolen necklace in Abby’s bag for absolutely no reason, and no less than TWO really awkward Christmas parties, it just made me think that I’d be having more fun staying at that bar all night than dealing with all that family drama.

“Don’t you have to be somewhere right now?”     “Do you?”     “Touché.  Can we get another round please?”

What saves the movie though are the performances, notably from Kristen Stewart and Mary Holland.  Stewart has a tough role to play here as she has to sell both the emotional weight of the situation while ALSO somehow making it feel light enough that you aren’t entirely turned off by it.  Not an easy task, and there are definitely moments where the burden is too much to carry (we’ll talk about that soon enough), but she’s very affable and I think she finds the perfect note between being above a lot of the nonsense coming her way as well as enjoying the family shenanigans from a distance that dulls the edges on the frustrating premise.  What also helps is Mary Holland as the kookiest of kooky family members, and while a lot of her jokes are on the lower side of low hanging fruit (imagine Gail the Snail fused with season one Leslie Knope) she was consistently entertaining to watch.  Aubrey Plaza is great in here as well as Harper’s “secret” ex-girlfriend.  She doesn’t have a LOT of screen time but she makes the most of it whenever he shows up, and I was also rather fond of Dan Levy as the Gay Best FriendTM which could have easily been an obnoxious role but he imbues it with genuine character and he’s VERY funny whenever he pops up.  There’s more than enough talent here for this to have been a great movie and perhaps if they pushed the envelope further into being less of a traditional Hallmark Feature they could have stretched their wings and given us something truly amazing, but like everything else in here the good parts bring the bad parts up a few notches and the end result is mostly Pablum.

“This party is deader than your goldfish.”     “Wait, what?”     “Couldn’t they at least have a fondue table or a hot chocolate bar?”     “No seriously, what was that about my fish?”

None of the cutesy Christmas stuff and predictable family arguments are what bring this movie down though.  Heck, they’re practically charming in this film that doesn’t try to pretend to be anything more than Hulu’s answer to The Christmas Prince which itself was Netflix’s answer to… well the ENTIRE Hallmark channel.  The thing that soured me on this movie beyond being just simple fluff is the character of Harper and the central conflict that she brings to the movie.  No matter how brave a face Kirsten Stewart tries to put on the situation, it’s hard to get over the fact that her girlfriend who must be approaching thirty hasn’t got over the fear of disapproving her parents; and yet that wouldn’t be so bad if the movie didn’t try to make us sympathize with the situation.  Harper makes so many relationship 101 mistakes in this movie which paint her in an absurdly unflattering light, and while the movie tries at the end to justify it after the obligatory “big blowup” scene, it simply doesn’t pass the sniff test.  Yes, coming out is hard for a lot of people, but she’s not financially dependent on her parents so she’s not risking her stability over it, she has her own life in a far off city where she IS out so she’s not risking any further discrimination or scorn from her ACTUAL community, so even if I believe that this woman has SO many issues with her family that she’s still hiding her sexuality to them, the framing of this being a difficult situation that Abbey should try to roll with feels needlessly tone oblivious; as does the overly generalized nature of her parents’ bigotry.  Her father is a politician and supposedly it would be “bad” for him to have a lesbian daughter (something that is confirmed within the text of the movie), and not only does this make no sense because Conservatives LOVE to have token marginalized people they can point to excuse their bigotry (I have a Black friend and all that), it feels so backwards that the SECRET is the primary conflict and not the fact that her family is like this!  Abby literally deserves NONE of the nonsense that is being put upon her in this movie, and I don’t think I’m the only one who was hoping she’d leave Harper for Aubrey Plaza’s character who seems to actually have the emotional intelligence to deal with a situation like this.

“You weren’t SINNING in here, were you!?”     “Of course not!”     “Good!  Have you seen Harper?  I can’t find her anywhere…”

Perhaps I’m overstating my frustrations with the story and it’s not exactly my lane to dictate how someone’s coming out should be framed, but I’ve certainly seen other people share the same sentiments that I have, and even with that issue I still come down on the mildly positive.  Perhaps it was a mistake in trying SO hard to replicate the Hallmark Christmas formula, but there’s no question that the LGBTQIA+ elements as well as the performances from those characters give this one a distinct edge over a lot of its peers.  Perhaps not enough to make it a film on the Christmas yearly rotation, but if you want something new for Christmas that still feels like something old, this will more than likely fit the bill.  It’s got its sweet moments, it made me chuckle a few times, and just seeing Aubrey Plaza and K Stew in the same room together was a treat, but don’t expect more than what it advertises.

2.5 out of 5

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