Holiday movies are normally not my thing. Frankly, they’re usually on the lazy side, trafficking in cliches and uninterested in still telling a good story. So, it’s all the more pleasurable to encounter a film like Happiest Season. Not just the best holiday-set picture in some time, it’s also just a top-notch romantic comedy that pushes all of the right buttons. Between a star-studded cast, confident direction, and a legit sense of delight that flows throughout the flick, this is something special. In fact, I’d go as far as to call it an instant holiday classic. Considering my indifference to Christmas films on the whole, consider it doubly praised here.
Happiest Season has it all, including a cast that just makes you smile at all moments. However, it’s not just the ensemble that raises this up. Co-writer/director Clea DuVall knows what to do with them, after a long career as an actress, herself. She gives her cast plenty to do, stages it all well, and keeps the pace moving. More on her filmmaking below, but she’s a big part of what makes this such a special work.
Of course, the movie is notable not just for executing the holiday rom-com subgenre. By telling a same-sex relationship story, it’s also making a statement and showcasing a welcome bit of acceptance. Christmas is often thought of as a traditional time, so DuVall and company mixing that with a clear-headed sense of correct diversity is a welcome subversion of what we too often see with holiday films.
Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis) are a lovely couple. They’re clearly in love and meant to be together, so much so that Abby has gotten an engagement ring. When Harper invites her to meet her family for a big Christmas celebration, it seems like the right time. During Christmas dinner, she’ll pop the question. However, Harper’s offer is quickly walked back, which Abby doesn’t think is a big deal, so she fully accepts, even over the suspicions of her friend John (Dan Levy). On the drive to her family’s home, Harper lets Abby in on a secret. No only has she not told her parents, siblings, or anyone in the clan, about her serious girlfriend, she hasn’t come out to them at all. Harper’s dad is running for Mayor of their town and needs everything to be perfect, so they’ll have to put on a show and pretend they aren’t a couple.
Upon meeting Harper’s family, including parents Ted (Victor Garber) and Tipper (Mary Steenburgen), Abby is introduced as Harper’s orphan friend and roommate. She sees how the family interacts, especially sibling rivalry between Harper and her sisters Jane (Mary Holland) and Sloane (Alison Brie). While Harper is seen as the favorite, Jane is often put to the side as the weird daughter, while Sloane is only seen for what she does and how she can present as perfect to the world, as opposed to who she really is. To say there’s tension in the household would be an understatement. What follows includes some mix-ups, close calls, and people from Harper’s past, including Riley (Aubrey Plaza). Through it all, Abby deals with the feeling of being hidden from the love of her life’s family, especially during this close holiday time. When it reaches a boiling point at the big Christmas story, we see the family’s true colors come out.
The cast here is just to die for. Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis lead the way, but everyone gets a moment to shine. Davis depicts the genuine conflict her character is going through incredibly movingly, while Stewart has never been more charming. Their chemistry together is absolutely wonderful. Both have trickier roles than expected, but ace them. Mary Holland and Dan Levy are ace comedic relief, playing broader characters, while Alison Brie, Victor Garber, and Mary Steenburgen bring added layers to roles that could have been thin on the surface. Then, there’s Aubrey Plaza, who’s the secret weapon of the film. A character that could have been superfluous or complicated for the plot actually elevates it in a lot of ways. The writing helps, but Plaza’s deadpan yet deeply emotional performance shines through. Kudos to everyone involved her for making Happiest Season soar.
Clea DuVall is clearly invested in making this more than a simple holiday movie or rom-com, and it shows. Co-writing (with Mary Holland) a story she came up with, DuVall has fun with Christmas tropes, while telling a distinctive story. Having wrote and directed her feature debut, The Intervention, about five years ago, she’s comfortable behind the camera, contributing smooth direction. There’s no sophomore slump here, as it’s a supremely charming and confident work. From top to bottom, it’s well done and puts forth a vibe that’s a mix of delightful and smart.
Happiest Season has a genuine sense of affection for its characters that really makes you fall in love with it. The growth by some characters, the understanding from others, it all feels earned. For a flick to do that, while trafficking in the tropes of a holiday tale, is really something. Moreover, to avoid so many of the cliches inherent in the genre, only elevates it more. Romantic comedies, holiday films, and crowd-pleasing cinema on the whole could take a lesson. This movie does it right, plain and simple.
In the end, Happiest Season carves a place out for itself as a modern holiday classic. If you love Christmas movies, this is for you. Even if you’re like me and prefer when they’re Die Hard, as opposed to It’s a Wonderful Life, this will do the trick. The film is just wonderful and represents one of the most purely enjoyable works of 2020. Soon to stream on Hulu, it’s going to have a long shelf life. In short order, it’s going to be required holiday viewing. Yes, it’s just that good. Don’t miss it!