If you’ve ever wrapped a gift, you know it can often be a messy and frustrating process. Some parts might end up looking a bit crumpled and ugly, but once you add a beautiful red bow, it all comes together.
That describes the feeling of watching Entertainment One’s latest holiday rom-com, Happiest Season.
The film follows Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis), a happy couple who spontaneously decide to spend the Christmas holidays together with Harper’s family.
It’s the first time Abby is meeting anyone in Harper’s family. She plans to make the experience special by proposing to her at Christmas dinner, much to the dismay of her best friend John (the incredible Canadian, Dan Levy).
On the way to Harper’s parents house, Harper confesses to Abby that she has not yet come out to her family and has been keeping her relationship with Abby a secret.
In addition to hoarding her own secrets, Harper asks Abby to play along in the role of Harper’s straight, orphaned roommate with nowhere else to go for the holidays.
This proves to be an extremely complicated and uncomfortable Christmas experience for Abby and Harper. It is also a very relatable experience for many queer couples that have been in similar situations of coming out to their families and introducing their partners.
The first half of the film establishes Harper’s family as dysfunctional and messy. What detracts from the film immediately is that Harper’s family can come off as overly self-involved and it takes a while for the audience to really understand and care for them.
The film’s tone likes to play off these family dynamics as cute, but since they are so toxic to one another I found their jokes to be more grating than funny.
Harper has an overbearing and emotionally suffocating mother, Tipper (Mary Steenburgen), and a father too focused on winning an upcoming mayoral election in Ted (Victor Garber).
Her two siblings are a younger sister desperate for any attention and approval from her family in Jane (Mary Holland) and an ice-cold older sister in Sloane (Alison Brie).
It’s hard to really care and like any of them when they’re not all that likeable, or even that funny.
An example of this are the dozen or so jokes Harper’s family makes referencing Abby being an orphan and feeling sorry for her. It comes off as more cringe-inducing and uncomfortable, rather than actually funny, since these moments do not seem genuine.
The joke fell flat the first time and the repetitiveness of that same joke made it even less humorous. The main issue with the film was that it isn’t all that funny in the first half due to these cringey and cheesy jokes.
The film’s comedy is based too heavily on the family members’ unlikeable personality traits. Their unlikeability is because it requires time for the audience to warm up to and understand why this family acts the way they are.
The performances in the film are endearing, even if certain actors are essentially typecasted.
Dan Levy as John is basically Dan Levy acting as David Rose in Schitt’s Creek. Kristen Stewart similarly plays to her strength of always looking incredibly anxious and uncomfortable in every single scene, similar to Bella Swan in Twilight.
Fortunately, it works in this film. Both actors have great chemistry together. Levy has David Rose elements which are both hilarious and heartwarming in some of the film’s best scenes.
The film does redeem itself in its second half. When you learn the reasoning behind why this family acts the way it does, it really comes into its own and proves to be a surprisingly emotional rollercoaster ride.
The central conflict of the film develops as Abby begins to feel like she doesn’t know Harper anymore because of how much she has to hide her true self when she is around her family.
This is due to Harper and her siblings’ constant competition for their parents approval.
It’s not something Abby understands, but this is what the film does best. Instead of villainizing either Abby or Harper, it makes you understand both perspectives and care about their relationship.
Audiences are able to understand Abby’s frustration in seeing her girlfriend act like someone she is not. They feel her jealousy when Harper gets closer to her ex-boyfriend, whom Abby never knew about, in one of her desperate attempts to seem heterosexual and “normal” to her family.
On the other hand, viewers are able to feel for Harper as well. Being in the closet is a dark and scary place – one where you have this innate fear of people looking at you differently.
The audience can’t blame her. She has spent her whole life inside a heteronormative, perfectionist environment.
By the end of the film, just like any other Christmas movie, it comes together and wraps up in a nice, perfect bow. Almost too perfectly, as the film subjects itself to these typical cliches that you see in every holiday movie, even with its unique premise.
Everyone seems to have learned their lesson. Everyone apologizes and makes up. It’s aggressively unrealistic, but maybe it doesn’t need to be.
At least the family is able to come to terms with and acknowledge how toxic they are. It’s an ending that wants to give the audience hope rather than bringing them down.
The film is able to have a positive, happy ending to a queer story as well, which is unfortunately so rare in movies and television.
Queer love stories are still uncommon among mainstream films, especially as the central story. Only in recent years have audiences received films like Love, Simon, which broke ground for being the first mainstream LGBTQ Hollywood film to center around a gay teenage protagonist in 2018.
Queer romances are often known for their tragic endings, where the romance either ends in one of the characters death or a circumstance that forces the couple to be torn apart.
In an article written by Benjamin Lee, a former juror at NewFest, New York’s largest LGBTQ film and media festival, Lee talks about how queer romances and queer stories in general are subjugated to stories where they suffer.
“Whether torn apart by death, homophobia or the dissolution of a relationship, the common thread was that LGBT characters were being torn apart by something,” writes Lee.
These are just some of the tropes usually associated with LGBTQ storylines. Even the most acclaimed queer romance movies like Call Me by Your Name, Boys Don’t Cry or Brokeback Mountain don’t have happy endings.
In the article, Lee also references the term “Bury Your Gays” as a trope commonly associated with queer deaths in media, as well as the “Sudden Gay Death Syndrome” which was coined by James Rawson in a 2013 Guardian piece.
In Rawson’s 2013 Guardian piece, he chronicles the number of Oscar nominated portratals of LGBTQ characters in cinema compared to heterosexual portrayals.
“Since Philadelphia, there have been, by my count, 257 Academy Award-nominated portrayals of heterosexual characters, and 23 of gay, bisexual or transsexual characters,” he writes.
According to Rawson, of the heterosexual characters, 16.5 per cent or 59 characters die. Of the LGBT characters, 56.5 per cent, or 13 characters die and of the 10 LGBT characters who live, only four get happy endings.
Some documentaries seek to highlight the history of queer representation on screen. Two examples are The Celluloid Closet released in 1995, and Visible: Out in Television released in 2020.
These two films look at queer represenation in cinema and television. Both show that queer people were seen as villains, monsters and often met tragic ends.
The documentaries are highly acclaimed as they go into depth on this complex issue of why queer characters can never be happy, let alone stay alive by the conclusion of each story.
The Celluloid Closet focuses on queer representation in films, particularly before 1995, where there were even less queer love stories on screen than today.
Visible: Out on Television focuses specifically on queer representation in television in a five episode docu-series format. It details the tropes and stereotypes, but also shows how far television has come to provide more authentic queer portrayals and storylines.
Happiest Season subverts typical queer tropes in favour of showing Abby and Harper’s relationship as something to be celebrated rather than demonized, although it’s not perfect even in this subversion.
It still focuses on familiar and overplayed queer storylines cliches like coming out of the closet and fearing rejection from your parents.
The film does not push boundaries in terms of having original storytelling and still has those cheesy Christmas movie genre tropes of having everyone learn their lesson in the end.
However, these cliches can apply to queer romances just as much as to heterosexual romances on screen.
The film does prove to be a slight step forward in the right direction for queer characters, couples and storylines in the holiday film genre.
The film is the first of its kind as a mainstream, holiday romantic comedy Christmas movie, backed by a big studio. It is a big step for a film to feature a lesbian couple in a genre oversaturated with heterosexual love stories.
There are also certain moments where these queer characters can just be themselves, without having to constantly resort to queer suffering or forced sex and romance.
An example in the film is when Abby starts getting closer to Harper’s ex-girlfriend Riley (Aubrey Plaza) and they form a sweet friendship.
Riley is able to shine a little more light on Abby’s situation by giving her advice and showing her a good time at a drag bar, allowing these characters to be developed in a comfortable, queer setting.
The film is mainly focused on Harper’s story, which is filled with queer repression and pain throughout, but it’s refreshing to see that it isn’t squarely focused on just that for all its queer characters.
The film succeeds because of its honest depiction of queer love and existence in a fiercely heteronormative world.
This honesty can be traced back to the team behind the film. It is directed by Clea Duvall, who is an actress known for cult classic queer films But I’m a Cheerleader and other well-known films such as The Faculty and Argo.
Duvall is queer herself and this is only her second feature film directorial project. She proves to be a talented director and writer who is unafraid to write a genre movie that accurately reflects her own experiences.
With Happiest Season, Duvall is able to create a film that speaks to the anxieties and struggles that some queer people face, while being able to give them the happy ending that they deserve.
Levy steals the show in the final act with an emotional speech that acts as a turning point for Abby. He talks about how every person’s story is different, which is why you can’t really judge someone for dealing with their issues differently than how you would.
“Everybody’s story is different. There’s your version and my version, and everything in between,” says Levy’s character John, in one of the film’s best and most heart wrenching moments.
It’s an emotional and well acted monologue that will resonate with any person in the LGBTQ community. It’s what ties together the film’s message, which is that for queer people, everyone has their own path to follow when it comes to coming out and being completely open and honest about who they are.
It’s a speech that is dark and may hit too close to home for those that have been through similar situations in their lives as John, Abby, Harper or Riley, but is an important message that the film needed to teach. For those who are outside of the community, it gives them a refreshing perspective and take on the Christmas rom-com genre.
Despite the poignancy that the monologue evokes, it is one that motivates Abby to understand Harper and allows these characters to learn, move on and grow as characters in the end.
Happiest Season ultimately wraps up as a sweet holiday treat that is recommended viewing this Christmas season. It is a film not just for people in the community, but for the whole family.