Directed by: Clea DuVall
Premise: Harper (Mackenzie Davis) brings her girlfriend Abby (Kristen Stewart) home for the holidays. But Harper has not yet revealed her sexual orientation to her family and she convinces Abby to pretend to be a platonic heterosexual friend.
What Works: Happiest Season applies the holiday-themed romantic comedy to gay characters and that adds some novelty to a very familiar premise. The film includes a handful of real moments as Harper and Abby navigate the holidays while concealing the truth about their relationship. Many of the film’s strongest moments are nonverbal as the couple reacts to inadvertently embarrassing situations. Aubrey Plaza appears in a supporting role as Harper’s ex-girlfriend and she possesses a credible weariness; she sees through the superficiality of Harper’s family and of the Christmas season and her scenes with Abby are some of the best moments in the film. As the central couple, Mackenzie Davis and Kristen Stewart are well paired. They have agreeable romantic chemistry, at least at first, and Stewart in particular impresses. She’s known for her subtle acting style and that works especially well here as a character muting her emotional responses.
What Doesn’t: Happiest Season is a romantic comedy and expectations for this genre are generally low. But they don’t have to be. The Philadelphia Story and When Harry Met Sally and Trainwreck are all excellent films in this genre. Happiest Season is not a particularly good romantic comedy. The most critical element of any romance is the central relationship. The audience has to want to see these people to end up together and that’s where Happiest Season falters. Harper, the closeted woman played by Mackenzie Davis, is awful to her girlfriend. We’re given an explanation for that but Harper makes matters worse at every turn. She’s quite callous toward Abby which causes our investment in the love story to evaporate and the inevitable break up scene comes as a relief; Abby finally gets away from someone who treats her so terribly. That terribleness is shared by the rest of the family and Happiest Season includes a number of subplots including the rocky relationship between Harper and her sisters (Alison Brie and Mary Holland) and the father’s (Victor Garber) political ambitions. The family background is rushed through and once everything comes to a head it’s all patched up too easily and too quickly. This is true of the rest of the film. The reconciliation between Harper and Abby doesn’t undo what we’ve witnessed and the end of the movie is flat and unbelievable.
DVD extras: Currently available on Hulu.
Bottom Line: Happiest Season sabotages a likable on-screen couple. The picture adheres to the romantic comedy template but the filmmakers botch the key details that make this genre work. It doesn’t deliver the feel-good heartache that audiences look for in a film like this.
Episode: #832 (December 27, 2020)