Just for shits and giggles I watched Happiest Season last night. It’s a gay Christmas romcom that’s available on Hulu. Abby (Kristen Stewart) normally just stays by herself and pet watches over Christmas since her parents died when she was 19, but this year her girlfriend, Harper (Mckenzie Davis) asks her to come home and meet her family. Except when they’re on their way to the nameless, picturesque New England town full of rich people Harper is from, the drops a bomb: she’s not actually out to her family, and she promises she’ll come out to them after the holidays, but her dad is using this Christmas season to try to impress donors (he’s a local politician) so can Abby please just pretend to be her straight roommate? Hijinks ensue. I laughed a reasonable amount and there were only a few times there was enough embarassment that I wanted to hide under a blanket, which is pretty good for a comedy.
I want to say this is probably the first movie I’ve seen Kristen Stewart in where she’s gotten to act like an actual human being, and I am into it. (Also, her Actual Lesbian costuming throughout the whole movie is *chef kiss.*) Honestly, everyone in the movie turns in a good performance, but I feel like Mary Steenburgen as Harper’s mom, Tipper, and Mary Holland as her slightly weird I’ve-been-working-on-a-second-world-fantasy-novel-for-ten-years-let-me-tell-you-about-it younger sister Jane are both total stand outs as well. And Daniel Levy as John, Abby’s flamingly gay best friend, was my absolute favorite character of the film.
But the big draw of the movie is that it’s presented as a very mainstream Christmas romcom, but it’s about a lesbian couple figuring their shit out, combined with a coming out story for Harper. It’s by no means the first LGBTQ romcom out there–to even imply that would be an insult to all the movies that came before–but it’s definitely in a very small vanguard of what could be considered mainstream along with Love, Simon.
I think what Happiest Season brings to the table (other than putting Kristen Stewart in the lesbian formal uniform of a snazzy jacket with an untied tie and a shirt unbuttoned halfway down her chest out there to make people question their sexuality) is its focus being more on the family comedy aspects than the romantic comedy aspects. For me, the biggest suspension of disbelief lift the movie has was believing the tortured logic of trying to believe Harper had good intentions of inviting Abby into her miserable, closeted homelife and then springing it on her in the car. I honestly still don’t buy the setup situation.
But once you get Harper into her family environment, her being so closeted mostly makes sense. It’s very much a wealthy white family story (for which it can and should rightly be criticised) but you get to see Harper basically regress into a child competing with her sibling Sloane (Alison Brie) for the affection of their parents, while Jane just desperately wants to be included in anything because she’s the family weirdo. It feels well established that their dad, Ted (Victor Garber), is very much the big fish in a little pond, and while it seems ridiculous that him being a city council member and wanting to run for mayor is so all consuming if the town is that small, we’re also apparently talking a town of very rich white people.
In a way, the setup is an interesting construction on why someone might not be out even if they’re not surrounded by overt, violent homophobes. Sloane’s been heaped with praise for getting married and having kids (even as she is disaparaged for having given up her legal career); you get the impression that not being heterosexual isn’t even an option that was presented to Harper until she got out of the house. Risking losing her parents is also a non-option for Harper for most of the movie, because she’s been so programmed by her upbringing to at all times be trying to earn their love. And there are plenty of homophobic dog whistles thrown in as well. The two that stand out to me is Tipper mentioning Riley’s (the town’s token lesbian, played by Aubrey Plaza) previous relationship as a “lifestyle choice” with dismissive horror. And of course, Harper’s dad makes a country club speech where he makes statements about not letting “depravity” into the town. Theirs is the genteel homophobia of rich conservative people who just see themselves as protecting their “way of life.” On the other hand, I think it’s something that probably could have been–and would have been if this was a family drama instead of a romcom–developed more and explored more, but part of the problem is that you need a happy ending when it’s a romcom. And for this kind of movie, mainstream and presented for viewing by non-queer audiences, the happy ending needs to be Harper’s parents being able to get over it and invite Abby into their family. At the end, you’re left wondering if Ted even really believes all that shit about “depravity” and he’s struggled to reconfigure his understanding of the world in approximately twelve hours or if it’s something he’s just been saying because he’s not nearly as much of a bigot as the donors he’s been trying to woo.
It’s a generally fun movie and as a romcom you know how it’s going to end. Abby and Harper make a cute couple, even if watching Harper devolve as one sometimes does around one’s family makes both the viewer and Abby question why the hell they’re in a relationship in the first place. The movie still mostly worked for me, even if I think it could have used a little more establishment of Abby and Harper’s relationship before throwing a wrench into the works. If you like romcoms of this sort, give it a whirl, though I had to do some work at the end to actually want Abby and Harper to stay together.
There’s one other thing I want to talk about, which could be considered a spoiler so I’m going to put it below the fold.
While John mostly slides in to bring the comedy back when Abby’s been a little too beaten down by being stuffed back into the closet by her girlfriend, he has this discussion with Abby about the process of coming out that was the one scene in the film that actually made me cry. Abby had a very easy coming out to her parents; they told her they’d love her and accept her no matter what. John didn’t, and he makes it clear that every coming out story is different. To a certain extent, this feels like 101-level stuff for the non-queer audience, but I think it’s also an incredibly valuable reminder for those of us who did have it easy. This is the moment where the movie really does take a deeper look into the difficulty of being in a relationship with someone who isn’t out… and makes the very important point that coming out is very personal. It’s not a matter of Harper not loving Abby enough to do it, because it’s not about Abby–it’s about Harper, and whether or not Harper is ready. And then this scene takes the next very necessary step, which is Abby concluding that she wants to be with someone who is ready… and John is supportive of that, too, because that’s the other massively important element of that. You cannot force someone to be ready to come out, but you also aren’t obligated to stick and hurt yourself in the process.
Like I said, I really loved that scene, and that’s the one that hit me the hardest because it is such an important conversation… and it was happening between two queer characters, when most of the move is about Harper’s angst over the heteros in her family. Honestly, if this had been more of a drama than a comedy, I feel like the ending should have been Abby leaving and moving on with her life because that was so plainly a moment of self-realization and letting go. Since this is a romcom, of course things work out in the end and Harper begs for another chance and Harper’s parents accept Abbey. To be honest, I’m a little conflicted because it’s a sweet ending, but after this amazing scene between John and Abbey, I found myself really not wanting to see Abby get back together with Harper.
But… not that kind of movie.
(Also, another reason to love John as the Voice of Queerness in this movie is him pointing out how fucking heteronormative and weird and un-feminist it is for Abby to not only want to marry Harper in a very traditional way, but ask Harper’s dad for his blessing. One of the scenes that had me laughing very hard.)