Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis) are just like any other couple in Hulu’s new holiday flick, Happiest Season. They have picnics in the park. They have cooking mishaps on Thanksgiving. Abby plans to propose on Christmas morning after getting Harper’s father’s blessing. Lesbians: they’re just like you. (This review contains mild spoilers.)
Happiest Season is punctuated at every turn by white heteronormativity. If the cast were less famous, and Abby were an Andrew, this movie would be at home on Hallmark, Lifetime, or one of a dozen other channels churning out barely distinguishable Christmas-themed content to fill their December airtime. The clashes between career-oriented Harper and her family-oriented sister Sloane (Alison Brie) mixed with the wacky hijinks of their father’s (Victor Garber) mayoral campaign would be enough to drive the movie to its cheesy, heartwarming conclusion.
What year is it?
But Abby and Harper are lesbians, something that Abby is open and easy about, and Harper is still hiding from her small-town conservative parents. She springs that tidbit on Abby as they’re driving to her parents’ for Christmas, and begs Abby to play the role of her orphaned roommate—the movie seems to find the deaths of Abby’s parents bafflingly hilarious—and to pretend that she is also straight.
The whole élan of the film seems stuck in a bygone era. Abby can’t be introduced to Harper’s parents as gay because a lesbian and a straight woman can’t be roommates. Harper’s openly queer ex-girlfriend Riley (Aubrey Plaza) is whispered about for her “lifestyle choice.” Dan Levy is doing his best in an utterly thankless role as Abby’s stock gay best friend, John. If not for references to ride-sharing and Instagram, Happiest Season might be mistaken for a fairly progressive film from 1998.
For a movie that’s helmed by writer/director Clea Duvall, an out lesbian, Happiest Season feels like a straight person’s version of a queer movie. Most of the queer characters spend a majority of their screen time performing straightness, and the prospect of being outed hangs over Harper’s head like the sword of Damocles. Ultimately, it’s troubling that the freedom of living one’s authentic truth is presented as a punishment rather than a decision.
Harper doesn’t earn her predictable happy ending. Coming out of the closet is a personal choice that everyone must make for themselves, and not even the love of one’s life gets a say in whether or when someone does it. But Davis’s portrayal of Harper is a woman constantly befuddled by, yet protective of, her hometown environment. She is willing to repeatedly hurt Abby, Riley, and the high-school boyfriend who clearly still has feelings for her to protect the image in her parents’ heads, and between her halfhearted attempts at apologizing and net negative chemistry with Stewart, it’s impossible to root for the character.
The most progressive thing about Happiest Season is that it’s utterly mediocre. It would be an infinitely better film if Abby and Riley ended up together, if John had a storyline that amounted to more than being Abby’s sounding board, if Harper’s endearingly eccentric sister Jane (cowriter Mary Holland) had more to do than be the butt of everyone else’s casual cruelty. But the fact that it exists at all in its utter banality means that queer creators don’t need to create spectacular, genre-defying content in order to get greenlit. Sometimes it’s just about the numbers.
With the exception of Davis, the cast is pure charm. Mary Steenburgen as Harper’s uptight, controlling mother makes the movie’s most unlikeable character engaging to watch, and anyone who enjoys a cheesy holiday romcom should put it on their watchlist. If it leaves the viewer wanting more, at this point, it’s successful enough to hopefully spawn a sequel. Abby and Riley might end up together after all.
Image description: A still from the movie Happiest Season. Actors Kristen Steward and Mackenzie Davis walk on a small street at nighttime with Christmas lights in the background. They’re wearing hats and coats and their faces incline toward each other, smiling.
What, When, Where
Happiest Season. Written and directed by Clea Duvall. Now streaming on Hulu.