- YEAR: 2020
- DIRECTOR: Clea DuVall
- KEY ACTORS: Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Aubrey Plaza
- CERTIFICATE: 12
- IMDB SCORE: 6.8
- ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 83%
SEX SCORE: 3/5
✔️ Of course this passes the Bechdel Test!
✔️ And I would definitely fuck the cast. I’m pretty much entirely straight and yet I would still definitely fuck either Kristen Stewart or Aubrey Plaza!
❌ But it didn’t inspire fantasies. I’ll admit that sneaking along corridors for secret sex at your parents house is kind of hot, but this is just too awkward…
❌ And the awkwardness means that I don’t think it is rewatchable. I’m not a huge fan of romcoms for exactly that reason and this is too much
✔️ But I will give it a mark for being sex positive – it’s queer positive and inclusive and, eventually, accepting!
As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…
STREAMING: Amazon Prime (rent £4.49, buy £7.99), YouTube (from £4.49). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com
2020 has ruined many things and one of the most pertinent for this blog is that the global pandemic has all but destroyed the movie industry. With no one able or willing to go to the cinema, studios are having to create new business models out of thin air and streaming really has become the only way to watch new big budget movies, which is both hugely upsetting as going to the cinema is one of my favourite things to do and equally as exciting as it means that we can all watch brand new movies easily from the comfort of our homes and, in our case, without needing a babysitter! And Happiest Season is a movie that perfectly represents this new way – a star-studded Christmas romcom for the holidays that ended up being released straight to streaming services but, rather than being a sign of poor quality, as straight to video movies always used to be, this is now looking like a vision of the future.
And Happiest Season is also a vision of the future because it tells a queer story – a lesbian romance for the mainstream viewer, and that is definitely something to be celebrated!
Happiest Season is about what happens when Harper (Davis) invites her girlfriend Abby (Stewart) to spend Christmas with her family. Unfortunately, Harper reveals to Abby on the way there that she hasn’t yet come out to her parents and they think she is bringing home her sad, orphaned roommate so that she doesn’t have to spend Christmas alone. Harper’s father is running for mayor and Harper hasn’t found the right time to tell him that she’s gay so hasn’t been able to tell them about Abby. Despite significant reluctance, Abby agrees to play along and pretend to be both straight and single for the holidays. This goes exactly as badly as you’d expect, especially as Harper insists on putting Abby in increasingly awkward and unforgivable situations – abandoning her at parties where she doesn’t know anyone, accusing Abby of smothering her when Harper stays out late with an ex-boyfriend, and eventually denying her sexuality to her family when she is outed by her sister. Understandably, Abby leaves her and then, less understandably but fitting the romance trope, they make up and live happily ever after!
I want to acknowledge before I go any further that I know I’m not quite the right person to be writing about this movie – Happiest Season is notable for being a queer romcom and I’m not queer. I haven’t had to come out and, while my family don’t know I’m in a polyamorous relationship, I have never felt that I have to deny a fundamental part of myself to be accepted by my family. Quinn Rhodes wrote recently about how painful it can be when going home means pretending to be someone you’re not, when spending time with the people who are supposed to love you means ignoring behaviours you would never otherwise tolerate, and this is not something I have ever had to experience. As such, I can’t ever fully understand Harper’s dilemma and Abby’s understanding about Harper’s deception. So I’m linking to a lot of reviews by queer writers and using other people’s words more than I usually would because their experience of this movie matters more than mine.
(This is a great time to remind you that I’m always looking for guest reviewers, especially if you have a different perspective from my cis, white, straight one!!)
Because, of course, the fact that this is a mainstream romcom about a lesbian couple is the main reason why it has become such a talking point this Christmas. It’s a queer love story! For a mainstream audience!! Although Happiest Season is not nearly the first queer romcom, it is certainly one of very few that haven’t been part of ‘queer cinema’ in inverted commas – if it weren’t for COVID, it would have had a huge cinema release all over the world, just like any other romcom. And that is important! While I am still waiting for a queer romcom where the protagonists have to face the same hijinx as straight couples rather than specifically queer ones, centring a lesbian couple in an otherwise ‘traditional’ (again, in inverted commas) movie is pretty radical and a huge step forward for the inclusivity of cinema.
As Makayla Philips wrote for Elle, ‘for so long, I’ve had to watch Christmas movies filled with straight people and their straight-people problems. A single woman gets a fake boyfriend to appease her family—why are there so many versions of this story?…As I watched Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis) walk arm-in-arm, admiring Christmas lights in the movie’s opening moments, I felt joy…Here’s a queer couple carving their own space in a genre usually off-limits to them.’
Representation matters. When we can’t see ourselves in the media and in the wider world, how can we believe that we are normal? And it has taken a ‘queer legend’ in Clea DuVall to create a film that does represent queer people and does feel real, rather that using queer characters as a token gesture towards inclusivity. For example, Heather Hogan wrote in Autostraddle that ‘one of [her] main complaints about queer movies and TV is always: Where are the queer best friends? Even in films and series with gay leads, everyone else is usually straight, straight, straight.’ But in Happiest Season, Abby gets a gay best friend John, played brilliantly by Dan Levy. Even better, he’s not the common trope of a gay best friend that shows up so often in straight romcoms, ‘placed in the best friend role to give the audience a laugh while spicing up an otherwise straight story.’ John is clearly an important part of Abby’s found family, offering the same love and unconditional support as blood relatives – and including this detail is one of many examples of ‘why it matters who is behind the camera telling certain stories.’
And increasing the number of queer people on screen allows DuVall to show that there is no one queer experience, something that should be obvious but would be difficult to believe if movie queerness was all you knew. Abby needs her found family because she’s an orphan – she came out before her parents died and it was received with love and without question; John had the opposite experience so needed his found family because he was estranged from his blood relatives for a long time. While Harper’s reluctance to come out is played for laughs (more on this later), it’s not entirely unbelievable. As John tells Abby later, coming out is never easy and it’s harder when you worry about how the news will be received: ‘That moment’s really terrifying! And once you say those words, you can’t un-say them. A chapter has ended, and a new one’s begun. You have to be ready for that. You can’t do it for anyone else.’
So a lot of queer people will lie to their loved ones for longer than they’d like because it feels too risky to change the status quo and, to again quote Hogan in Autostraddle, this creates a ‘distinctly queer and quietly heart-wrenching experience of not being able to share your real self with the people you love most, when all you want to do is shout from the tallest chimney in town that you’ve found your person, that you’re in love.’ And for me, as the straight part of the audience, that’s why this movie is so important and why Kristen Stewart is so incredible – we can see and feel her discomfort at being lied to by her girlfriend AND by being pushed back into the closet and having to deny who she is, but we can also see why she is willing to accept so much, why she doesn’t turn and leave straight away.
But, BUT, for a movie that has been ‘aggressively marketed as the lesbian Christmas rom-com of our dreams,’ Happiest Season has a significant problem – Harper is awful.
She is awful! The way that she treats the woman that she is supposed to love more than anyone else feels absolutely unforgivable. And this is a big problem. Heather Hogan wrote that ‘for Happiest Season to work, Abby and Harper’s relationship has to feel worth it’ and it just doesn’t. I was one of the many thousands of people hoping that Abby would get together with Riley, Harper’s secret ex played by the extraordinary Aubrey Plaza. I really didn’t want her to get back together with Harper and so I found their reunion oddly deflating. The movie doesn’t end with the floaty happy feelings that should accompany a happily ever after and, just as in The Holiday, I found myself worrying about the future problems with their relationship!
In their review of the movies of 2020, the Big Picture podcast team weren’t that surprised with how much love there was for Riley as she follows the ‘grand tradition’ of romcoms where the third person in the love triangle is always kind of dreamy, citing Patrick Dempsey in Sweet Home Alabama and James Marsden in The Notebook as examples. But in both of those films, the actual love interest was definitely better than the dreamy almost-love. Sure, Dempsey and Marsden had their appeal but, as a viewer, you never doubted who the heroine would end up with. I could understand why they made their choices and cheered when it ended exactly as we knew it would. Instead, in Happiest Season, it is Riley who looks like the better choice: ‘With Aubrey Plaza’s kindness and charm, we’re reminded of what a queer heroine worth rooting for looks and sounds like.’
Happiest Season fails because it treats Harper’s deception as ‘a wacky rom-com premise’ rather than showing what an enormous betrayal it is. Harper has been lying to Abby for months and only reveals the truth when Abby can literally do nothing about it. They’re in the car in the middle of nowhere; she can’t walk away, she can’t go back home. All she can do is go along with Harper’s lies. It’s honestly unforgivable and led Ella Dawson to suggest that Happiest Season has ‘more in common with the horror film Get Out than with its holiday rom-com peers.’ It is an absolute nightmare and feels cruel to play it for laughs. DuVall’s story never gives Harper time to explain or space to prove why she’s worthy of Abby: ‘it’s never clear why we should root for her to live happily-ever-after with Harper, whose redeeming qualities don’t go far beyond “loving Christmas.”’
As Ella so eloquently wrote, Happiest Season ‘breaks the cardinal rule of romantic comedies: that the film’s love interest must adore and champion its heroine.’ We are supposed to root for Abby and Harper. They’re supposed to be good for each other and when Abby is facing endless trial and humiliation, her love interest is supposed to be her rescue rather than the source of her humiliation. This is why Riley felt like Abby’s movie-soulmate more than Harper – she followed the rules of being the one who was always there to help and who saves her from those awkward social situations, just as Mark Darcy was for Bridget in Bridget Jones’s Diary.
It’s why I started to wonder what the movie would have been like if it were a straight movie. If the male hero had been lying to his family about having a girlfriend and she had to pretend to be his lonely friend while he abandoned her at parties and went out drinking with his ex. Would we expect the heroine to stay with him? Because I really don’t think we would. We’d see what a dick he was and be expecting her to leave him – probably for his hot doctor ex!
Why is it different in a lesbian romcom?
Interestingly, neither Kristen Stewart or Clea DuVall think Harper was as bad as she looked to me. Talking about Harper’s character to Variety, Stewart said that ‘she has this open, extremely kind, aware, delightful nature. I can’t get mad at that person! Like, I really, really like her.’ And DuVall told Entertainment Weekly that Happiest Season is about ‘understanding that sometimes you have to go low so you can figure out your way back up. And I understand the impulse to just cut and run, and be like, to hell with this. But I also really believe that people can get better, people can grow, and people can change…I’ve spent four years with Harper — I feel like I understand her, and I love her so much. And I think she’s worth it.’ I wonder if the time they spent in creating the movie, and the time DuVall spent writing it, allowed them an insight into the character that didn’t translate into the final movie. They were aware of what was missing for the rest of us – a reason to root for Harper.
In the end, Happiest Season was always going to fail. Choosing to market itself as the movie that an underrepresented minority has been waiting for creates an insurmountable amount of pressure and is always going to disappoint a proportion of those people who are so desperate to see themselves on screen.
Of course, that’s OK too. Just as one bad film by a female director shouldn’t ruin it for all future women, one average queer movie shouldn’t stop future movies from being more inclusive and showing more diverse relationships. It’s just a shame that the problems with Happiest Season are so closely linked to it’s queerness. As Ella wrote, ‘while we understand why Harper behaves the way she does, that doesn’t make it okay for her to inflict her pain onto Abby. Coming out can be traumatic, and as the film strives to underline, it is a different experience for all of us. That being said, it’s also deeply upsetting to be forced back into the closet by your partner and watch her choose her fear over her love for you—over and over again. There are only so many times that a character can choose to fail the film’s hero and still be redeemed.’
I’m going to finish with an extended quote from Makayla Philips in Elle as it sums it all up better than I could:
‘But I needed more. I needed the film to earn its happy ending and hold Harper accountable, to unpack the trauma of coming out and how queer people harm themselves, each other, and those closest to them under societal pressure…I understand how time is wasted unlearning and struggling with heteronormativity, but that’s not an excuse to inflict emotional pain on others in the process. Being afraid of confronting one’s own personal trauma (especially as a rich, privileged white woman) doesn’t excuse actions that hurt people. I don’t want queer people accepting a partner who gaslights them because they’re scared. I want queer mainstream films that delve into coming out and reckon with all the messiness of the situation. I want films that acknowledge the lived experiences of Black queer people. I want queer mainstream films that go beyond coming out to showcase the complexity of their characters. I want queer mainstream holiday films filled with the adorable moments Happiest Season opened with—the cuddles and calling each other baby.’
In short, we wanted more…
NEXT WEEK… It’s a Wonderful Life