When her girlfriend Harper invites her to accompany her home for Christmas, Abby soon finds out that Harper has yet to come out to her wealthy, conservative parents and the entire family is under the impression that Abby is simply Harper’s roommate. Abby reluctantly agrees to go along with the charade as Harper promises to tell her parents everything after the holidays are over.
And thus begins about 70 minutes of watching Abby (Kristen Stewart) try to awkwardly navigate Harper’s snooty, rude family, with very little help from Harper herself. The only saving grace of the bunch is Jane (Mary Holland), an aspiring author who has a lot of love to give and is quite obviously desperate to fit in and be included.
I won’t lie, for the majority of the movie I just wanted Abby to call her friend John (an always wonderful Dan Levy) to come pick her up and take her home. Harper continually blew off Abby, not seeming to grasp that it’s an incredibly shitty thing to do to leave your secret girlfriend alone around a bunch of people she doesn’t know. Harper’s oldest sister Sloane (Alison Brie) is as outwardly bitchy as their mother Tipper, played by Mary Steenburgen.
Harper’s father Ted (Victor Garber) is obsessed with image and his candidacy for Mayor, leaving Abby with no one to really talk to but for Harper’s ex-girlfriend, Riley (Aubrey Plaza). Given Harper’s crappy behavior, and the chemistry between Abby and Riley, I was leaning towards wanting Abby and Riley to end up together. I just couldn’t see how Abby could continue to love someone who was clearly not ready for the kind of relationship and commitment Abby wanted. I couldn’t see how Harper could claim to love someone and then treat them so poorly.
Thankfully, Happiest Season didn’t ignore Abby’s painful dilemma, or Harper’s cowardice. As John explains to Abby, his coming out story is different from Abby’s, and Abby’s is different from Harper’s. Revealing one’s true self can be painful, and it can be scary, especially for someone who has been raised in a conservative household. This particular scene between John and Abby was one of my very favorites of the movie, and by far one of the most emotional. Not only is John helping Abby understand the fear that Harper is dealing with, but he’s revealing a part of himself as well, and how hard it was for him after coming out to his unaccepting father. John could have easily become the stereotypical gay best friend, but he has depth and nuance and it was such a joy to see.
Despite my intensifying anger at Harper and her entire family, sans Jane, I think Clea DuVall did a magnificent job writing and directing Happiest Season. While Harper’s family had some terrible moments, they weren’t simply one-dimensional antagonists meant to drive a wedge between Harper and Abby. Like John, they too had depth and felt like fully realized people.
Despite her attitude, you knew Sloane just wanted to feel worthy of her parents’ love again. Harper wanted to make her parents proud. Jane just wanted to be acknowledged. Ted and Tipper were too obsessed with perfection and image to understand the damage they inflicted upon their daughters, intentionally or not. Of course, these issues are dealt with and while it’s hard to imagine everything is fixed in the course of one evening, you do understand healing and acceptance can happen. DuVall took what could have been unredeemable characters and made me sympathize and even understand them on some level, and that takes talent.
Happiest Season isn’t flawless but it’s an enjoyable, endearing holiday rom-dramedy with wonderful LGBTQ representation.