Romantic comedies around the holidays, especially Christmas, are a staple in Hollywood. People falling in love, a strange family drama, awkward misunderstandings and happy resolutions on time for Christmas morning are expected in the most colorful rom-com subgenres. Also expected? Focus on a heterosexual couple. (They’re almost always white, too, but luckily that has changed in recent years.) Happiest season is a welcome reminder and hopefully a sign of changing times that not every love story is a clear one – and that everyone deserves to be portrayed with sweetness, laughter, joy and inventiveness.
Abby’s (Kristen Stewart) not the biggest Christmas fan since losing her parents, and it’s hard not to blame her. However, she is happy and content in other ways, including in her relationship with her friend Harper (Mackenzie Davis). When Harper invites her home to meet the family for the holidays, Abby takes this as a sign and plans to come up with a proposal on Christmas morning. Unfortunately, a hetero-shaped wrench is thrown into the mix when Harper reveals, minutes away from her family’s house, that she hasn’t come out to them yet – and that she needs Abby to pretend they’re just two straight women who share an apartment. Let the vacation kidnappings begin!
The happiest time of the year is a harmlessly good time full of little laughs, big tears and enough holiday spirit to satisfy any Christmas rom-com fan. Director / co-writer Clea DuVall grabs the screen with kind faces and loving intentions, and the combined effect numbs the nagging feeling that the bones of the subgenre underneath, even though the surface dressing is fresh, are overly familiar and light. To be clear, this isn’t really a hit, as lint has its place – especially lint, who love their characters so much that viewers will have wet eyes on act three.
It’s a big request from Abby to hide her love, but the film thankfully avoids any really messy or embarrassing twists and turns in the story that could result from this. Some little jokes play with the idea of Abby sneaking through a conversation that is pretending to be straightforward – a gag repeated (similarly smiling) by her best friend John.And Levy) later in the movie – but it’s not an exaggeration. The less humorous but more interesting point of view has Harper reset in ways that transcend her sexuality as she retreats into the comforts of her old high school friends (including an old friend being played by) Jake McDorman) and focuses on pleasing her political father (Victor Garber). There’s more than enough potential for conflict there, but much of it is wiped away to focus on Harper’s struggle to show loved ones that she is gay.
It’s an undeniably valid and immensely personal struggle and the script for the happiest season that was co-written by Mary Holland (who also plays Harper’s sister Jane) succeeds in reconciling the terror of the unknown and the fear of not being accepted with an otherwise predominantly bright tone. We get physical comedy on an ice rink and during a fancy party, fabricated and comfortable misunderstandings and a gag that lands Abby in a literal closet. Seriously, this last joke works incredibly hard to get to the point where Harper’s mother (Mary Steenburgen) can say “Why are you in the closet?” loud. Fluff comedies aren’t known for their subtlety folks. (Not to mix in holidays, but the best gag in the film is some sort of Easter egg that features a Josh Hartnett poster on Harper’s bedroom wall – DuVall starred in The Faculty alongside the ’90s Dreamer in 1998.)
Stewart and Davis have an engaging chemistry, and like the mindlessly entertaining reboot of Charlie’s Angels last year (shut up, it’s harmless fun), Stewart is once again a delight to show off her comedic skills. Recognizable faces and established talent play a big role here as the supporting cast are just as welcome as the two main cast. Garber and Steenburgen are warmer than their characters first suggest. Holland is as sincere as the strange daughter that everyone has given up Alison Brie get it hard to brew with their own problems. Levy is probably as undecided here as Schitts Creek continues to win over hearts and fans on Netflix, and while barely making any effort to differentiate that feat from his role there, he still manages some fun deliveries and piercing expressions. “There is nothing more erotic than hiding your authentic self,” is an example of how he combines the two. Aubrey Plaza Plus, she plays too small a role – seriously, she threatens Davis more than once with stealing audience sympathies – which leads to a more cautious performance that still finds humor and humanity in limited screen time.
The happiest season isn’t the first holiday rom-com with gay characters in the foreground, but it’s the highest profile. The trend should continue to the point where it need not be pointed out, and hopefully future films will not rely on the “coming out” angle as the couple’s sole source of conflict. It’s an undeniably important part of a gay person’s life, but it’s not their defining characteristic. John once told Abby: “Every story is different. There’s your version and my version and everything in between. “While it isn’t necessarily handled with a skillful touch here, it comes with an honest eye that leads to an ending that is sure to lead to warm tears. Is it progress? Yes. Is it ultimately unforgettable on the comedy front? For sure. At the end of this hellish year, is it worth 100 minutes of your time? Absolutely.