Despite the dreadful behavior, I found this movie ultimately very satisfying and Kristen Stewart is marvelous as always.
Happiest Season Is an Instant Feel-Bad Christmas Classic
The film teases itself as a subversive take on the Hollywood rom-com. That’s not what it delivers.
BY LUCY DIAVOLO December 21, 2020
In the opening scene of Happiest Season, the recently released Christmastime fish-out-of-water romcom with a gay twist, we find two young lovers on a tour of a brightly decorated neighborhood. It sets the stage for an idyllic Hallmark-style movie — until we get our first taste of subversion, indicating this could be a classic holiday story with a delightful twist.
The scene proceeds with Harper Caldwell (Mackenzie Davis) taking her girlfriend Abby (Kristen Stewart) on a cute “be gay, do crimes” adventure, scaling some scaffolding to take in the view of the entire neighborhood before Abby, hanging off a gutter like Clark Griswald in Christmas Vacation, gets busted for trespassing by a domme dressed as Mrs. Claus. With that opening, I was all set for a campy gay send-up of a Lifetime original Christmas movie.
What we got, however, were brief flirtations with that kind of subversive satire embedded in a story about the very real pain of how difficult it can be to fit gay lives into straight worlds. Rather than an all-out genre satire, the movie is a heart-rendingly real portrait of the conflict between maintaining notions of a traditional family while simultaneously building one that rejects heteronormative strictures. It’s a story about the discomfort of assimilation and what’s at risk when sticking out makes us feel like we have to try to fit in.
After the lovers’ transgression, Harper asks Abby to come home with her for Christmas, setting the stage for the film’s real stakes: as she reveals later in the car on the drive to her parents’ house, Harper isn’t out to her family, and they think Abby is just her orphan roommate. Harper wants to keep her relationship with Abby a secret because her dad, Ted Caldwell (Victor Garber), is running for mayor. The conflict between their love and his political aspirations lies at the center of the film, but it can be difficult to track this given how carefully the audience has to piece together what Ted’s politics are.
“These are turbulent times,” Ted tells a friendly crowd as he announces his mayoral campaign at a fancy party. “And the way I can ensure depravity doesn’t seep in through the cracks of our community is by making sure there are no cracks. Our foundation is built on family, tradition, and faith. And that is the only way we will keep safe and strong.”WATCHThis Lesbian Couple Talks About Their First Threesome — Oh and LoveMore them. Videos
This suggests Ted might be a Republican, but all we know for sure is that his campaign relies largely on the benevolence of a powerful donor, Harry Levin (a radiant Ana Gasteyer). But we also know Abby and Harper live in Pittsburgh, where Harper writes for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. That’s relevant in that Pittsburgh is in Allegheny County, a blue spot in a sea of neighboring red on the 2020 electoral map. If we’re meant to believe Harper’s family lives somewhere outside Pittsburgh, they could easily be Republicans.
That context informs not only Ted’s politics, but also Harper’s struggle with them. I remember growing up visiting family in western Pennsylvania, where my great uncle always called me a “lily” when I was a kid. I almost chose it as my new name when I came out as a trans woman — if only it hadn’t felt so cliché!
Against this backdrop, Harper experiences a terrible and very queer trauma: a deliberately harmful, extremely public outing. That moment being in a Hollywood movie is extremely powerful, just as a matter of representation. While coming out can finally be celebrated in mainstream media in ways that were historically impossible just a short time ago, being outed remains a persistent threat for people in situations where revealing who they really are presents clear and present danger. I know this because I was outed once by a vengeful middle school ex-girlfriend in a campaign meant to hurt me. Allison Brie’s performance as Sloane in that moment was haunting because of the horror she unleashes on her sister and the old terror it evoked.
But on a first watch, I felt a cognitive dissonance between the empathy I felt as someone who once went through something similar and the complete lack of sympathy I had for Harper. After watching her force Abby back into the closet, blow her off for her old straight friends, and generally refuse to acknowledge all the harm she was doing, I didn’t want to see her happy. It took a second watch for me to arrive at a deeper understanding of her crisis in the context of her father’s and her community’s politics.
Harper is struggling to reconcile her boundless love for Abby with a system where everything from campaign donations to parental love is predicated on scarcity. But just like in our real-world capitalist hellscape, scarcity is a myth — a capitalist economy relies on us believing that there isn’t enough to go around, so we have to keep fighting for scraps when, in reality, scraps are all that is being sold. Ted and Tipper (Mary Steenburgen delivering pure camp) still have love for their daughters even when they aren’t perfect. And Ted even finds a way to still become mayor without Harry Levin’s help, as we see in the end credits, a montage through Tipper’s Instagram that shows Ted celebrating his victory.
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But a cliché happy ending every Christmas movie taught us to expect — with Abby and Harper engaged and Mayor Ted taking office — doesn’t feel like the kind of subversion the film teases the audience with. Clea Duvall, the film’s writer director, is by all means a camp icon, having played the love interest in the seminal 2000 camp classic film But I’m a Cheerleader. Same goes for her work in the 1998 horror genre subversion, The Faculty. I have to believe she saw the potential for the queer subversion of a Hallmark-style Christmas romance, a genre that practically propagandizes heteronormativity. And Happiest Season is full of holiday hijinks from characters like Tipper and Jane (screenplay co-writer and improv luminary Mary Holland), who are comedic engines propelling some of the scene’s madcap moments, whether it’s finding Abby literally in a closet or the bottom falling out of the world’s biggest box of wine.Most Popular
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Subversion is what the movie feels like it wants to provide, but it doesn’t want to commit. John (Dan Levy of Schitt’s Creek) is both great comedic relief and emblematic of that tension. He’s the film’s strongest voice against systems like heteronormativity and patriarchy, but from the moment we meet him, we see he’s a hypocrite.
“If the NSA can do it, so can I,” he tells Abby when she asks what he means that he’s “tracking” someone. Near the end, John is in a gas station bemoaning “the poison these corporations try to pass off as food” as he’s filling a basket with the snacks he’s “disgusted” by. How can we take him seriously as a critic of any system when his own morality is so flexible?
But even John isn’t just a joke or a hypocrite. After Harper is outed and denies her love for Abby, she goes on a walk with John when he reveals his own sad coming-out story, reminding us that even if he can’t keep a fish alive, his character is more than just a morally flexible clown, just as none of us are as one-dimensional as we might make ourselves to play a role.
As the movie enters its finale, Harper does come out to her parents as a lesbian. But for Abby, it’s too late. Only then, it’s not. After some sisterly apologies and one gas station parking lot speech, everything works out!
For a love like this, a happy ending can feel like a subversion. Happiest Season delivers on that, but it’s hard to enjoy it. Despite teasing us with tastes of transgression, the film is really about the struggle to assimilate. And for that, it could just be a feel-bad Christmas movie for the ages.