Happiest Season: Clea DuVall’s Amiable Romantic Comedy (Xmas, LGBTQ, Lesbian)

Actor Clea DuVall’s feature directing debut, Happiest Season, is a likable and relevant lesbian romantic comedy, based on a screenplay she co-wrote with Mary Holland.

Grade: B (***1/2 out of *****)

Happiest Season
Happiest Season poster.png

Official release poster

The ensemble cast includes Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Dan Levy, Mary Holland, Victor Garber and Mary Steenburgen,

The film, which describes a woman’s struggles to come out to her conservative parents while she and her girlfriend visit them during Christmas, is semi-autobiographical, based on DuVall’s own experiences with her family.

Produced by TriStar Pictures, the film was released on November 25, 2020, by Hulu, and internationally on November 26, by Sony Pictures Releasing and Entertainment One.

Abby Holland and Harper Caldwell have been dating for nearly a year.  Since Abby dislikes Christmas since her parents passed away, Harper invites her to celebrate the holidays with her family.

Abby sees this as the perfect opportunity to introduce herself to Harper’s parents, and then propose to her on Christmas morning.

However, on their way to the Caldwells’ house, Harper reveals that she had lied to Abby about coming out, fearing that doing so would interfere with her father’s campaign for mayor.

To that extent, she asks Abby to pretend during the holidays as if she is her straight roommate.  Abby reluctantly agrees, and soon after finds herself sleeping in the basement.

Abby’s initial question of “It’s five days, how bad can it be?” would be tested and contested.

 

Families and holidays are not always smooth sailing.

If Duvall errs, it’s in conceiving the Harper’s family members as narrowly-defined types.  Harper’s father Ted (Victor Garber) is a conservative politician running for mayor; his campaign speeches are peppered with slogans such as “faith,” “tradition,” and “safe.” Harper’s mother Tipper (Mary Steenburgen) is a passive-aggressive perfectionist. Harper’s older sister Sloane (Alison Brie) comes across as too competitive a person, while the other sister (Holland) represents the opposite in her insecure neediness.

The tale’s most shallow characters are Harper’s exes, Connor (Jake McDorman) and Riley (Aubrey Plaza), who threaten conflict.

 

Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis in Happiest Season.

Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis in Happiest Season

Aware that her story is a variation of an established genre, Duvall makes the most of its basic structure of a loved-up couple in need to overcome various obstacles, within and without the family to reach genuine happiness.

Half of the narrative is familiar, following the format by including scenes of misunderstanding (here at the shopping mall) and reconciliation.  As expected, there are also Christmas rom-com antics, including slapstick physical comedy.

Nonetheless, at the center of the tale is the universal desire for love and acceptance, and while we are following Abby’s perspective, it’s Harper’s character journey, that need desperate need for approval from her parents, that deserves our attention.

Dan Levy plays John, Abby’s best friend.

Dan Levy plays John, Abby’s best friend

Indeed, DuVall, an openly lesbian actor who has portrayed queer characters on screen including in But I’m a Cheerleader and as Marjorie in Veep, has succeeded in making a tale that’s fresher and warmer than could have been in the hands of another director (straight male or female).  Highest Season unfolds as a more personal and intimate saga than the norm, largely due to Duvall’s personal investment in the story.

Of the secondary characters, queer icon Dan Levy is given a nice scene, in which he delivers a stirring, emotional speech to Abby as her best friend John.

And there’s a sequence that will make all gay viewers cheer. Duvall contrasts the warmth and friendly spirit of a gay bar (with drag queens) with the cold and detached straight bar.

Very much a movie for our times, Happiest Season is not a major feature by any means, but it’s clever, relevant, and highly enjoyable.