By Staff Writer Kruthi Gollapudi
Drawing in the most viewers Hulu has ever had for a movie premiere, Happiest Season, co-written and directed by Clea DuVall, is a holiday film with an inclusive premise, but sadly, is too formulaic to be truly memorable. Despite its festive mood, heartwarming moments, and genuine LGBTQ+ representation, the movie’s mediocrity leaves viewers feeling as if it could have been something more.
Released on Hulu on November 25, Happiest Season follows the relationship between Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis) and serves as the first major holiday studio film centered around a same-sex couple. Staying true to the time of year, the movie begins with Harper inviting Abby home for Christmas, only for the former to remember that she still has not come out to her conservative parents, Ted (Victor Garber) and Tipper (Mary Steenburgen). Wanting to keep her secret, Harper convinces Abby to pretend that they are straight until the holidays are over, and both discover more about themselves and each other in the process. Filled with romance, comedy, and holiday cheer, the movie captures the struggle of being in the closet and wanting to be accepted by one’s family.
Happiest Season was released on Hulu despite originally being scheduled for a theatrical release.
Even though the portrayal of an LGBTQ+ main couple is what makes Happiest Season so monumental, representing the film industry’s step toward a more progressive future, the story arc of the central romance is sadly where the movie is most lacking.
Viewers are introduced to Abby and Harper immediately, but due to uneven pacing, 90% of the film is spent drawing out the conflict between them. Time and time again, Harper’s adamance to keep up their charade leaves Abby alone and in misery, resulting in the two spending a majority of the movie separated from each other. In addition, the film, told from Abby’s point of view, makes the audience more sympathetic to her situation, despite Harper being the one struggling with her identity. While Stewart and Davis excel in their portrayal of their respective characters, the little chemistry they have with each other makes it difficult for viewers to establish an emotional connection to their relationship. The absence of sufficient backstory about Abby and Harper prompts the audience to wonder why they are even together in the first place, causing the rather rushed happily-ever-after ending the couple receives to feel undeserved.
The film’s central couple, Abby and Harper, lack the chemistry needed to make Happiest Season truly compelling.
Similar shortcomings in character writing and development extend to Harper’s family as well. The overstated dynamics between her stereotypical suburban parents and overly farcical sisters — the pointedly stuck-up Sloane (Alison Brie) and comedic relief Jane (Mary Holland) — are suffocating at times. These characters act as ornaments, used only for contrived humor and peripheral entertainment, until the end of the film when they come together and are finally honest with each other, giving viewers little insight into their thoughts, feelings, and motivations.
Harper’s extended family, comprised of an ensemble cast, adds little to the film.
If anything, Happiest Season is definitely a Christmas movie, tried and true, emphasized by its poppy holiday soundtrack, warm color palette, and setting adorned with twinkly lights, snowy trees, and houses decked out in red and gold decorations. This festive atmosphere gives viewers the same warm and fuzzy feeling they get when watching their favorite holiday classics.
And while the countless moments dressed up in Christmas cheer do a great job at keeping the holiday spirit alive, the film ironically works best when it’s doing the exact opposite. Abby’s moments with Harper’s ex-girlfriend Riley (Aubrey Plaza), who Harper similarly treated unfairly, were raw, realistic, and enthralling. The effortlessly natural chemistry between the two leave viewers wanting to see more of their budding relationship. John (Dan Levy), Abby’s best friend, has a beautiful down-to-earth scene with her in which he sheds light on the struggle of coming out, bringing some truth and realism to this romantic comedy. And most notably, Harper’s heart wrenching coming out speech and Abby’s subsequent and sadly realistic reaction were enough to elicit tears from the audience due to the actors’ stellar performances.
While certain scenes such as these emotionally raw ones stand out and make the movie worth watching, the saccharine “everyone is suddenly forgiven because it’s Christmas” ending takes away from the story’s emotional impact. Throughout Happiest Season, one thing that DuVall emphasizes well is the importance of not being perfect — life is messy, and sometimes, that isn’t a bad thing. She had the opportunity to flesh out and deepen the meaning of this theme by sacrificing the film’s cookie-cutter ending, but unfortunately, DuVall opted to fit Happiest Season into the mold of a Christmas classic with a quintessential happy conclusion. This quick-fix resolution contradicts the movie’s main message of reinventing perfection and leaves viewers wanting more in terms of story, growth, and development.
Overall, Happiest Season has a strong premise, but poor execution. Its LGBTQ+ representation and feel-good vibes definitely deserve the hype, but at the end of the day, the film’s clunky pacing and poorly written romance cause it to fall flat. The film is a cheery Christmas movie, and one with great potential at that, but its failure to aim higher leaves audiences wondering what could have been.