The average holiday-themed romantic comedy is such a synthetic box of delights, such a pleasingly calculated assortment of warm-and-fuzzies, that it’s worth taking note when someone tries to steer it in a tougher, more honest direction. “Happiest Season,” a new comedy directed by Clea DuVall (“The Intervention”), is a clever, affecting, endearingly imperfect example. Starring Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis as a lesbian couple keeping their relationship under wraps during a Christmas get-together, it means to express something pointed and sincere about how families operate, how secrets fester and how important — and difficult — it can be to live authentically.
For Abby (Stewart), an art history grad student, and Harper (Davis), her journalist girlfriend, authenticity doesn’t initially seem like a problem. They’re introduced walking through a crowded, festive neighborhood on a chilly Pittsburgh night, seemingly carefree and deeply in love. It’s not until they’re off to spend the holidays with Harper’s wealthy suburban family, whom Abby has never met, that the bombshell drops: Harper has never come out to her folks, let alone told them that she has a girlfriend.
This comes as a shock to Abby, who’s been out for years and is planning to propose marriage, to the initial chagrin of her buddy John. (He’s played by “Schitt’s Creek’s” reliably scene-stealing Daniel Levy, nicely repurposing the gay-best-friend trope for a gay protagonist.) But her plans will have to wait: Harper begs Abby to temporarily pass herself off as her (straight) roommate and promises to tell everyone the truth soon, just not now. Her city councilman father, Ted (Victor Garber), is running for mayor of their hometown, and she can’t do anything to jeopardize his appeal to the conservative family-values crowd.
It’s worth noting that the word “conservative” (or, for that matter, “liberal”) is never uttered aloud, and no specific party affiliations are identified. As in most Hollywood movies featuring characters who work in politics — or, like Harper, write about politics — actual views on ideology and policy are conveniently swept under the rug. Still, the conservatism of Harper’s family is as plain to see as their neatly lined bookshelves, magazine-ready living room and sometimes wearyingly stuffy traditions. Unexamined homophobia is pretty much a given, even before Harper’s mom, Tipper (Mary Steenburgen), makes a snide remark about gay people and their “lifestyle choice.” (“Such a shame,” Ted murmurs in assent.)
Abby and Harper both visibly blanch at those words, in one of several deftly underplayed moments that make “Happiest Season” something subtler than the big, chaotic, misunderstanding-strewn domestic farce it otherwise resembles. Scene after scene, the movie hits the standard dysfunctional-family comedy beats; it’s full of petty rivalries, carelessly trampled feelings and outsized performances from a committed supporting cast. Steenburgen makes Tipper a breezily caustic matriarch who spends all her time running Ted’s campaign Instagram account and whittling everyone else down to size. These include their brittle, competitive eldest daughter, Sloane (Alison Brie), who flaunts her successful business and two young kids, and their eccentric, big-hearted middle child, Jane (Mary Holland), who has accepted her lot as the least favorite of the three.
Holland co-wrote the script with DuVall, and they’ve invested it with a shrewd, somewhat contradictory appeal: the promise of novelty wrapped up in a shiny, soothingly familiar package. That a mainstream movie centered on an LGBT couple still counts as something relatively novel in 2020 is, of course, more than a little dispiriting. Two years ago, “Love, Simon” billed itself as the first gay teen romantic comedy released by a major movie studio; “Happiest Season” is being sold as the first studio-produced, LGBT-centric holiday romantic comedy. (It was produced by Sony but is bypassing theaters due to the pandemic and being released directly on Hulu.) It’s thus the latest movie to put a familiar question to the viewer: Do you applaud it for breaking new ground, for revivifying an old formula with underrepresented characters? Or do you reject it for not going nearly far enough, for succumbing to the comforts of formula in the first place?
The answer, I think, lies somewhere in the middle. The conventionality of “Happiest Season” might be the most radical thing about it. The movie boasts the usual surface delights and yuletide setpieces: It has competitive ice skating and a white-elephant-gift party, shticky running gags and acres of throw-pillow-heavy production design. It also has two lead performances of remarkable grown-up complexity and moment-to-moment coherence. Davis, a chameleonlike screen presence (“Halt and Catch Fire,” “Tully”), teases out Harper’s inner conflict with a refreshing indifference to the audience’s sympathy: Her desperation for the approval of her parents and her small hometown, even if it means feeling ashamed of the woman she loves, isn’t pretty, but there’s something eerily recognizable about the way she seems to flip a switch the minute she returns to her childhood home.
Harper is the uptight yin to Abby’s low-key yang, which both amplifies the conflict between them and suggests they’re a complementary match. Stewart gets to flex some underused comic muscles — Abby’s inability to lie convincingly is the gift that keeps on giving — but her go-with-the-flow vibes mostly serve to modulate the comic busyness around her, giving this frenzied farce a quietly persuasive emotional core. Abby notably lost both her parents years ago and has no family to speak of, which becomes part of her cover story for why she’s tagging along with Harper for Christmas. As she sits on the sidelines, watching this raucous, frequently ridiculous family tear itself to pieces, you might wonder if she isn’t frankly better off.
It’s no surprise when Abby, feeling neglected, forges a friendly connection with Riley, who was Harper’s first girlfriend back in high school. Riley is played by Aubrey Plaza, who brings her usual sardonic smarts to bear on the material, as well as something more: a flicker of impish possibility. She and Stewart have such natural chemistry in their scenes together that I found myself briefly wishing Riley and Abby would hook up and run off, leaving this wretchedly picturesque hamlet of homophobes behind. “Happiest Season,” alas, isn’t that kind of movie, which is not to suggest I mind the kind that is.
“Happiest Season” (3 stars)
Abby and Harper (Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis) must keep their lesbianism under wraps during a Christmas visit with Harper’s conservative family, to whom she has not come out. Mary Steenburgen and Daniel Levy steal scenes as Harper’s acidic mother and Abby’s sassy supportive sidekick, respectively, in this well-made take on the holiday-themed comedy genre.
Rating: PG-13, for some language