Girls and gays rejoice! Director Clea Duvall has brought us a queer holiday classic of our very own. Happiest Season— premiering November 25 on Hulu—stars Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis as the lesbian couple of your dreams, as they navigate the vagaries of being back home for the holidays. In the film, Abby (Stewart) is blindsided when— after inviting her home to meet her family— her girlfriend Harper (Davis) admits that she lied about having come out to her parents, and her family doesn’t yet know that either of them is gay.
As streaming services encroach further into territory that used to be firmly claimed by the Hallmark Channel, the end of the year has meant a noticeable glut in forgettable Christmas movies that establish the holiday season as a markedly heterosexual affair. But with her second directorial feature, Duvall—and co-writer Mary Holland, who also stars— have crafted a Christmas movie that speaks to the unique challenges queer people face in their daily lives and how they might manifest during the holidays.
“The idea for Happiest Season was born out of my desire to see my experience represented in the holiday/rom-com genre,” Duvall told Jezebel. “In order to do that, I needed to tell a story that felt authentic and was populated with three-dimensional characters who were on specific journeys. When Mary and I began writing together, our focus was always on telling a story based in truth and honoring our characters. It was never about just swapping a straight couple for a same-sex couple.”
Thankfully, Happiest Season more than achieves this goal. The movie is, most importantly, delightful. Stewart and Davis sing onscreen together as a couple who are very much in love, and they are able to convincingly establish that deep well of affection in the mere 10 minutes before all hell breaks loose. Their romantic chemistry is perhaps more yearned-for than readily apparent (overall, the film is quite chaste), but it is solid enough that you understand why Abby agrees to Harper’s bizarre request that she climb back into the closet for five days so that Harper’s parents will have time to know and love her despite her queerness.
As expected, things go haywire almost immediately. From run-ins with both Harper’s ex-boyfriend Liam (Jake McDorman) and secret ex-girlfriend Riley (Aubrey Plaza) to a shoplifting accusation that embarrasses her father’s campaign for mayor, Abby quickly falls out of favor with Harper’s family. And as the tensions grow, Harper deliberately and repeatedly puts more distance between herself and Abby, eventually prompting a gut-wrenching but overdue breakup.
But this is a Christmas movie, which means that after an appropriately realistic declaration of love, the two get back together— and that may actually be the film’s biggest flaw. For all the confusion that ensues in their relationship, their reunion feels far too easy.
“As the story evolved I think it became clear to both of us that we really wanted them to end up together and we wanted it to feel like Harper’s journey is a complicated one,” co-writer and star Mary Holland told Jezebel. “Because yeah, she makes choices in the movies that the audience isn’t necessarily gonna be overjoyed about.”
In fact, by the film’s end, Harper has dragged Abby through a maze of near-unending emotional terrorism, including uninviting her to a family event in a town where she knows no one else, staying out all night with an ex-boyfriend who is still in love with her, and loudly and publicly denying their relationship to anyone within earshot. It’s hard to keep rooting for them to be together.
Over the course of the film, Abby’s behavior becomes increasingly indefensible. Slipping easily back into the role of the good (and straight) daughter, she rejects the parts of herself that allow her to be a woman who loves women. Even her costuming in the final big party scenes draws a bright and gendered line separating her from Abby— the former in a tasteful turtleneck and skirt, and the latter in a deconstructed lady suit to rival A Simple Favour’s Emily Nelson. In fact, costume wise, a clearer line is drawn connecting Abby and Riley, highlighting their shared status as rejected queer women, in addition to the surprisingly crackling romantic chemistry between them.
It’s a small detail that highlights something Abby has only recently discovered: this is how Harper has always handled conflicts between her family life and her sexuality. When her teenage relationship with Riley was discovered by a friend, Harper outed her and subjected her to widespread ridicule rather than admit to the relationship. Harper has twice now met the prospect of coming out of the closet with an emotionally violent rejection. It’s a hurdle that’s hard to clear.
“But Harper is in a place with her experience and coming out to her family—the difficulty of that for her and the struggle of wanting to do that while you’re also back in this environment of your childhood home, and these old dynamics and these old patterns of behavior—It was important to us to have audiences empathize with her and understand it,” said Holland.
Duvall concurred. “We meet Harper during the worst week of her life. It is a difficult position to put a character in, but it speaks to the reality of how difficult the process of coming out can be. Yes, Harper behaves in ways that we might not like, but it’s not who she is. She is a very good person going through something that terrifies her and she loses herself for a period of time. But in the end, she does the right thing, she is true to herself, and because of that, she is able to be truly happy. She deserves to be redeemed, she deserves to be loved,” she said.
And it’s hard to disagree on that point. As upsetting as it is to see Harper’s transgression grow by the day, the film does give the audience a mechanism to forgive her. Her family’s picture-perfect image has put significant pressure on her to present as the ideal daughter, and she truly believes that her family will reject her if she doesn’t meet their expectations. As she tells Abby, she isn’t hiding their relationship so much as she’s hiding herself. Unfortunately, in this case, the two are one and the same, and Abby has been asked to make an outsized sacrifice that Harper is initially unwilling to reciprocate.
According to Duvall, however, Harper would always have found her way back to Abby. “I believe Harper had a plan to come out to her parents after the holidays. I also believe there were moments during the trip when she considered just going for it, but our families can do funny things to us, and when those old dynamics kick in, it can be difficult to break out of them.”
What frustrates, though, is that Harper never actually does “just go for it” even as her alienation from Abby increases. It’s why it feels that by bringing the women back together, the film misses the opportunity to queer the holiday romance genre itself, by shifting the expectations of the form and asserting that a happy ending need not be the conventional romantic one. What if instead, a true, emotionally honest happy ending meant Harper lost Abby, but finally made peace with herself? What if she came out to her family not because Abby’s departure forced her hand, but because she’d finally grown tired of compartmentalizing the people who meant the most to her?
And what if Abby’s happy ending meant ending up with Riley? Or at the very least, gaining a new queer friend who also deeply understood the still-raw emotional trauma that had just been inflicted upon her? What if happiness meant becoming whole, instead of becoming coupled? Apology or not, it’s hard to believe that any relationship could survive the profoundly traumatic wound that Harper inflicted on a woman she loves. But Duvall and Holland had other plans.
“Having the ending be Harper and Abby coming together was so important because we want those two to be in love. We wanted this to be a story of true love and how they can overcome whatever is standing in their way,” said Holland. And in a lot of ways, that argument holds the most water. Every single straight holiday film ends with a couple in love. It is a de facto requirement of the genre. So why shouldn’t the queer holiday film get the same treatment?
Philosophical musings aside, Happiest Season is full of performances that make the runtime worth it, including Alison Brie and Mary Holland as Harper’s older sisters Sloane and Jane. Brie’s icy cruelty (complete with her “blunt bob of evil”) lets her flex her practiced bitch face and get a few cutting lines in, while Holland’s ditzy middle child energy leads to one of the most hilarious lines in the entire film.
But it’s Dan Levy’s John who stands out as an example of a gay best friend character who rises above stereotypes by having an inner life of his own. In many ways, John is the archetypal gay man in a romcom who exists to finger snap and deliver witty lines in defense of the protagonist. But here, John is the gay best friend to another gay character, meaning that by virtue of that one detail he is instantly lifted from tokenhood.
“The main characters in this story are gay. So the gay best friend is no longer just a fringe character who comes in and has no other purpose besides to deliver a funny line and then leave,” said Holland. “Dan’s character becomes a sort of mentor for Abby. And their friendship is rooted in a deep respect and appreciation. The scene with Dan and Kristen towards the end of the movie—you see that character drop into a new level. You hear his experience and you understand how he’s viewing the story and how it’s affecting him and his desire to support Abby in this journey.”
The scene is beautiful and moving, but it’s almost guaranteed that John would be read (and treated) as a Magical Queer trope if Abby had been straight. By expanding the number of queer characters from one to three, Happiest Season gets to keep its zingers and add some emotional heft too.
But for Duvall, the trope’s echoes weren’t even part of the equation. “To be honest, I don’t think of John as the ‘gay best friend,’” she said. “Abby and John are just friends. As a gay woman, I have a lot of gay male friends who are a major part of my life, and I wanted to give Abby a similar kind of relationship. Their friendship speaks to the idea that we are all part of the same community and can be there for each other in a unique way.”
With so many narrative tethers to keep track of (Have I mentioned that Abby is an orphan who hates Christmas? And that she’d been planning to propose? And that Drag Race alums Jinx Monsoon and Ben De La Creme show up for a bit?), it might be tempting to dismiss Happiest Season as overstuffed seasonal fluff. But the film packs a punch and is filled to the brim with moments of comedy and sincerity that are all worth the journey. Duvall created a universe in which struggle doesn’t have to end in sadness, but can instead be a trial by fire for the deepest, most meaningful connections of all. When asked if there was ever a version of the story where Harper and Abby didn’t end up together, Duvall’s answer was a simple, but emphatic “No.”
Because in her universe, love wins.