A new relationship during the holidays is a recipe for hilarity and high jinks. There’s meeting the family, heavily enforced traditions, and all sorts of other religious and historical wrenches to throw into the spokes of what could be cozy couple time. Happiest Season takes on all of these elements, plus the added layer of hidden identity—with mixed results.
The hidden part of this Christmas comedy is thanks to Harper (Mackenzie Davis). She loves the holidays and her family—and her girlfriend Abby (Kristen Stewart). The fact that Harper has not come out to her family is not only a shock to Abby, but waiting to tell her until they are driving to Harper’s family Christmas puts Abby in the position of lying on Harper’s behalf and hiding her own identity as well. When Abby asks, “It is five days, how bad can it be?” she soon gets her answer.
Harper’s family is not only completely unaware of her sexual orientation, they are intense. Mom Tipper (Mary Steenburgen) is obsessed with posting pictures of their perfect family online. Dad Ted (Victor Garber) is running for mayor. Sister Sloane (Alison Brie) seems to be more uptight than everyone else, and sister Jane (Mary Holland) is the black sheep, though that is a fairly low bar in this high-profile, wealthy suburban Pittsburgh family.
From here we get the usual dose of expected family gags. Sloane has a pair of creepy twin kids who pop into rooms silently and judge. A trip to the mall ends in a massive miscommunication between Abby and the mall security. Ice skating bonds the three sisters through competition and knitted garments. And Harper has incidents with not one but two exes who still run in similar circles as her parents. We’ve seen this before.
Happiest Season shines when it takes its time to deal with the uniqueness of its premise. But the film insists on spending far more time on the less remarkable moments. Ted and Tipper forcing a dinner with Harper’s handsome and successful ex Connor (Jake McDorman) is awkward enough, but adds little to the plot and doesn’t deepen Harper’s character—things would be just as awkward were they all straight. It’s the moments Harper is with her secret high school girlfriend Riley (Aubrey Plaza) that help us understand how Harper got Abby into this situation, and bring nuance into the film. These brief windows into the complexity of their lives, more so than people who never have a closet to come out of, humanize and emphasize. This is not merely a white lie, it is Harper living in fear of being rejected for being her true self.
To that end, Davis feels a little wasted in this role. Aside from the inevitable emotional climax on Christmas morning, she plays a bland woman who is concerned with family appearances, and seems quite happy in her hometown. She effortlessly rises to the demands of the character, but as one of the more interesting actresses working today, the rest of the film feels like a lost opportunity. Others have to do the heavy lifting to make Harper seem intriguing and torn, as she glides through the visit relatively unscathed.
While Stewart does an incredible job of managing a smiling but disappointed visage throughout, Holland and Daniel Levy are the ones stealing the scenes. Holland takes what could have been a throwaway, comic sidekick and turns her into the confident but quirky sister standing in the shadows of Harper and Sloane. She seems aware of their differences but assured of her value in the world—and that confidence makes her the one to watch in any ensemble scene. Levy, as Abby’s best friend John, is the fast-talking supportive rock that Abby needs to get through these five days. He’s the only one looking out for her, and their chemistry sells the friendship.
Happiest Season should be lauded for not only addressing the complicated and weighty issues around coming out, but also for having a queer relationship at the heart of a traditional Christmas family comedy. Yet, it still stops short of condemning hatred and homophobia. There are hints of the negative impact that such outdated and ignorant beliefs can have on lives, thus justifying Harper’s reluctance to express herself, but the film never goes so far as to identify these beliefs as the real villain here. Sure, Harper’s repeated lies are problematic and the source of funny antics, but Happiest Season avoids connecting the dots to the homophobia that drove her to lie for all these years.
Happiest Season is a solid addition to the legions of heteronormative Christmas movies. Had Harper been a more engaging character or if it focused on what sets it apart from other holiday films, it might have been a great one.