Happiest Season is trite, platitude-heavy Christmas offering that fails on nearly every front.
Five years ago, when Todd Haynes’ Carol hit theaters, a moment was marked in which the worlds of queer cinema and the Christmas film were twined. In fairness, Carol wasn’t exactly a mainstream flick wholly suitable for casual yuletide viewings, but when Hulu’s highly-anticipated holiday rom-com Happiest Season was announced, there was reason to think audiences would finally see the perfect marriage between the two genres. Unfortunately, something of the opposite is actually the case: this calculated marriage seems to be the only purpose for the film’s existence, and director Clea DuVall (and her co-writer, Mary Holland) struggles to get any of the film’s moving parts to work as they should. It’s obvious from early on that DuVall tends toward a low-key, nonchalant realism in delivering the film’s love story, and the specifics concern the relationship of Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis) as they head from Pittsburgh to Grove City for five days of holiday merriment. The catch is that Harper, despite earlier proclamations, has not come out to her family, and so the setup shapes the plot to come as both a meet-the-parents narrative and a coming out story. The film that follows strives to be simultaneously goofy, joyful, poignant, pensive, and progressive, but in its sheer lack of vitality, it achieves exactly none of these things.
Happiest Season is both narratively and aesthetically built from the bones of familiar, clichéd infrastructure — historically heteronormative, but which here have the potential to be inverted, and so hope remains — but the larger problem lies within the platitude-heavy and aggressively trite manner with which DuVall handles everything. It’s an ineffectiveness that is broadly evident. The film boasts a flavorless script where canned situations, like an ice skating sequence or some scenes of mall shopping, serve no emotional or intellectual purpose; they’re simply familiar bits of window dressing. Meanwhile, most attempts at both comedy and drama quickly fall flat, or, even worse, are executed in the most mawkish fashion — viewers would be forgiven if, in the film’s “moment of truth” sequence toward the end, they observed some ludicrous resemblance to the Friends’ episode when Rachel puts beef in the trifle (and it would be even more forgivable if they, like Joey Tribbiani, impatiently shouted “I wanna go!”). Add to all of this that the dialogue is always cheesy and tastelessly half-baked, and every sentiment is repeatedly expressed in increasingly unsubtle ways: “Yeah, I mean there’s nothing more erotic than concealing your authentic selves”; “This family has nothing to hide”; “Abby, what are you doing in the closet?” And the default of derisory, cartoonish characterization means most of the supporting cast exists as nothing more than mere accessories. In fact, what Happiest Season most resembles is a stream of disjointed episodic scenes pasted together, something like trying to find a cohesive story while scrolling down an Instagram feed — it’s not surprising that the film’s opening and ending credits are filled with snapshots and IG posts, or that Harper’s mother (Mary Steenburgen) obsesses over capturing the perfect photograph on her iPad.
All of these frustrations exist to such an extent that it’s difficult to appreciate the admittedly effective duo of K-Stew and Mackenzie Davis, who can only do so much to try to save this insipid film from total failure, or even find enough space to fully realize the chemistry they carry. For most of this ersatz, cringy dramedy’s runtime, even Stewart — despite her natural charm and easy presence — is doing nothing but playing beta here, squirming a bit and walking about with stooped shoulders, while Davis’ embodies an immature, spoiled brat, desperately waiting to come out of the closet to her conservative parents but afraid it will upset her family’s perfect image. For all of the film’s facileness, perhaps what irks most is the invisibility of the ostensible “true love” at its core. We are told that this couple is bound by it, and yet it is barely even signaled let alone developed, which makes it quite a chore to muster up any sympathy for the duo. In other words, it’s tough to see what the film keeps insisting is true. If one were to ignore the fact that Happiest Season features what is probably one of the stupidest party-crashing moments in memory and what is absolutely one of the most bungled attempts at a happy ending, the film at least adheres to the holiday genre’s penchant for moralizing, which may be enough for its built-in November/December audience. There’s little doubt that DuVall’s heart is in the right place, but it doesn’t save her film from being one of the least joy-bringing Christmas flicks in recent memory. But hey, in the spirit of the holidays, rather than getting grumpy about Happiest Season, let’s just wish for a much better and happier season next year!
You can currently stream Clea DuVall’s Happiest Season on Hulu.