Amidst the flurries of snow in an idyllic Pennsylvania hometown, Happiest Season looks like a replica of the easily recognizable and oft parodied Hallmark formula. Akin to its predecessors, there’s a cynical Christmas-hater and their romantic interest, returning home from the big city for the holidays. But, whereas those films have formed a cinematic canon out of bland, innocuous (read: Waspy) heterosexuality, Happiest Season instead spotlights two lesbians at the center of its unimaginative Christmas romance.
After losing her parents at nineteen, Abby (Kristen Stewart) doesn’t see the appeal of Christmas. Hoping to inspire some festive spirit, her girlfriend Harper (Mackenzie Davis) on a whim asks Abby to spend the holidays with her family: a mayoral hopeful (and thinly-veiled Republican) father; Instagramming, appearances-obsessed mother; and two sisters, who primarily function as objects of Harper’s envy and chagrin. The hitch? Harper never told them she’s gay, so Abby is thrust into the role of straight, orphan roommate—and back into the closet.
The screenplay, co-written by Director Clea Duvall, is based on her own experiences—ones, she mentions, that are not particularly represented in film. For all the cries on Twitter about how we don’t need more studio-backed LGBT rom-coms primarily centering coming out narratives, there has been a resounding silence to the answering: “What gay rom-coms? Where are they?” Beyond Love, Simon and perhaps a few other irregularities, queer narratives are often found in the lovable, but out of sight, rom-com side characters or the more dramatic arthouse fringes. In that periphery, admittedly, coming out stories in different shapes and forms are more common. This makes sense, though: coming out is one of the most unifying life experiences amongst queer people, and it’s a process that is rarely one and done. In a hostile, heteronormative world, coming out can be a lifetime endeavor. So, critiquing Happiest Season for the story it tells is a bit ridiculous. But it is fair to critique it for the way it tells that story.
First, the good: Happiest Season, if you don’t look too closely, is a nice piece of Christmas fluff that will have those starved for happy(ish) lesbian representation at least a little sated by the end. There are a couple of delightful cameos from drag queens BenDeLaCreme and Jinkx Monsoon, two alums of the wildly successful Rupaul’s Drag Race, delivering the joy and rebellion of drag to a wider audience. Happiest Season, in addition to its lesbian main characters, also has gay side characters: Abby’s friend John, played by the luminous Daniel Levy, and Harper’s ex Riley, played by an uncharacteristically vulnerable Aubrey Plaza. (I would like to extend a personal thank you to whoever made the decision to cast Plaza as a lesbian.)
The offbeat comedy unfortunately seeks humor through inane quips and caricature, often wasting the ensemble’s talents and ending in more unintentionally funny moments than anything else. In one absurd scene, Harper’s sister Sloane (Alison Brie) calls Abby “sappho” as a pseudo slur, which was so odd—yet weirdly tame—as an insult, it’s difficult to even identify what the intent of the line was. Homophobia? Humor? A cutesy mix of the two? Happiest Season, like its genre companions, is watered-down and sanitized for maximum good holiday cheer, which, for a film that features personal identity politics and a literal political campaign so prominently, makes for a confusing mess. Happiest Season pulls its punches by implying, but skillfully dancing around, bigotry.
Horribleness is played up for laughs, but there’s substance behind the banter. Dismissive, snide, and outright hurtful comments are swapped between family members, particularly between sisters Harper and Sloane. The two have been pit against each other for the entirety of their formative and adult years, seeking the validation their parents only grant to the most accomplished and influential child. Harper’s temporary triumph is evinced by her responsibilities within her father’s campaign, but its obvious (though unstated) conservative bent—he eulogizes “family, tradition, and faith” and shames certain “lifestyle choices” over dinner—and her hidden identity put her in a precarious position, grappling to preserve that standing while internalizing the shame of the closet. Luckily for Harper, in movies like this, the magic of the season is the deux ex machina she needs, softening hearts and bringing family together. With a few words, everything is tied together with a neat little bow and a saccharine one year later epilogue. All is forgiven.
Happiest Season’s tonal struggle lies not with its coming out narrative, but with the rom-com-ification of its coming out narrative. It introduces characters that are realistic impediments into an unrealistic formula, dragging their feet even as the plot is pulled along its Hallmark trajectory to a predetermined happily ever after. When it gets there, no one quite knows what to do. In an honest moment near the end of the film, John asks Abby how her parents took her coming out to them and she tells him that they loved and supported her. He responds, sincerely: “That’s amazing. My dad kicked me out of the house and didn’t talk to me for thirteen years after I told him.” Harper’s family, through their emotional abuse and conservative philosophy, have made this second possibility a strikingly real one.
Coming out can be paralyzing, for the very reason John mentions: familial acceptance isn’t guaranteed. But acceptance also isn’t the end-all-be-all. While normalizing queer children and young adults experiencing love and affirmation from their parents is an admirable goal, Happiest Season’s attempted shortcut to emotional resonance falls flat. For a split moment during John’s speech, I dared to hope for a happy ending for Harper apart from her toxic relatives, one that acknowledges the space that found family can fill when the worst of coming out scenarios comes true. Wed to its genre conventions, Happiest Season never considers this alternative path. And, while it’s hard to be mad at something as well-meaning as Happiest Season, it’s not hard to be disappointed by the unresolved potential.