Jacob Richardson | 26/11/2020
A ‘woke’ Christmas classic.
Abby (Kristen Stewart) hasn’t liked Christmas since her parents died one Christmas past. Yet, as her girlfriend Harper (Mackenzie Davis) loves the holiday, she tries to make it special - even going so far as to buy a ring and planning to propose over the holiday break. When Harper invites Abby to her family Christmas, Abby sees her opportunity - she’ll ask Harper’s dad for his blessing, and propose Christmas morning. When she gets there, though, she is horrified to discover that Harper isn’t out to her parents, and they don’t know about Abby. Abby has to navigate the waters of a domineering mother (Mary Steenburgen), a mayoral candidate father (Victor Garber), an overbearing sister (Mary Holland), and another cruel one (Alison Brie). As Harper struggles with her family’s expectation, and Abby confides her fears and concerns in her best friend John (Dan Levy), they grow further apart. Will the approaching Christmas Day push them irrevocably apart, or bring them closer together?
Directed by Clea DuVall, Happiest Season is a bastion of cultural sensitivity in this day and age, adeptly navigating the waters of political correctness to bring a new lens to the generations old tradition of Christmas movies. It’s also a pretty funny rom-com. Dan Levy in particular strikes a hilarious tone, crushing the comedic perspective of this film and in many ways making up for a lack of that acerbic wit from the rest of the cast.
That being said, the rest of the cast is uniformly good. Stewart brings an emotional sensitivity to the role that is commendable, belying her indie bona fides in this decidedly mainstream yuletide film. Aubrey Plaza also pops up in a much different role than we have seen her before, eschewing her sarcastic demeanour for a more serious, romantic tone.
The story is fairly standard Christmas fare; a mix of romantic highs and lows, and Christmas-related hijinks. All of the seasonal beats are hit - from the snow covered big American house, to the street of Christmas lights, gingerbread men and eggnog. The interesting thing is they are all done fairly well too - Happiest Season echoes the classic Christmas tropes, while also layering a modern relationship and the associated struggles on top.
Issues arise, however, when interrogating the characters on display here, because the fact is that with a cast this big, no one really gets too fleshed out. As much as this is a subversion of the genre, the characters are fairly standard cookie-cutters. They also in some cases have very little agency. We’re asked to root for Abby and Harper’s relationship, but Abby is constantly downtrodden by Harper and her family, to the point that you want them to break up. While DuVall does flip the script at the end, it's a hollow win. We’ve spent so long with this couple and having Harper lie to and abuse Abby, and so little time with them as a functioning one, with so little character work or backstory, that for it to succeed feels a little like we are being cheated.
In the end, this is a factor of the combined deeply thought out dramatic element and the heart-of-gold saccharinity of the story. We can’t have too complex an ending (it is a family Christmas movie after all), so instead we’re left with a hollow one.
This is a worthy addition to the Christmas movie pantheon, but it’s ending rings hollow due to the subverted character arcs.