Christmas movies are great, but I have to admit that I struggle to think of one that actually represents me. That’s probably one reason why Happiest Season made such a big splash when it came out. Finally a lesbian love story in the midst of all the heteronormativity thrown at us every holiday season! I was incredibly excited to sit down and watch it with The Wife, and while I enjoyed the ride, it did leave me wanting at the end.
Happy Beginnings (Or Not)
Happiest Season is slightly unusual as a Christmas movie in that it starts with the happy couple already being a happy couple at the beginning. This is cool, of course – after all, not every story has to be about the romantic build-up of people getting together. If anything, it’s a modern approach and not the all too common woman falls in love with woman but can she admit her gay feelings? setup.
However, the real setup of the story feels hardly modern at all: Woman invites her girlfriend to her parents’ house for Christmas but isn’t actually out to her conservative family! It’s even worse than that, though, as not only is she not out to her family, she previously pretended that she did come out to them! And that they were all very happy for her! And she only mentions this to her girlfriend in the car on the way there!
But alright, let’s roll with it and see how our heroines fare. Speaking of which, they are Kristen Stewart as Abby and Mackenzie Davis as Harper (from that lovely gay San Junipero episode of Black Mirror). Now I have to admit, as much as I disliked the whole Twilight franchise and all its damaging lessons for it teaches young girls, I’ve had a soft sport for Kristen Stewart ever since I’ve seen her play Joan Jett in The Runaways. That girl can act, and she’s a pleasure to watch in this film as well.
As for Mackenzie Davis, her acting is good, but the script makes her unlikeable and inconsistent. If the script doesn’t show a lot of nuance in her character, she clearly can’t make it up out of thin air.
Lastly, there’s Aubrey Plaza as Harper’s ex-girlfriend Riley. She’s built her career amidst people questioning her lifestyle choices, and whether by choice or by accident, she lives her life openly and extends a hand when Abby needs someone to pick her up. She’s funny and supportive and may we all run into a Riley if our girlfriend ditches us in a small town during the holiday season.
The premise of the film is that Harper (Mackenzie Davis) invites her girlfriend Abby (Kristen Stewart) to her parents’ house for Christmas. Abby hasn’t enjoyed Christmas since her parents passed away, but she’s making an exception for Harper – and is thinking of proposing to her with her father’s blessing.
The only catch? On the way to the prospective in-laws, Harper mentions that she actually never came out to them and by the way, they are rather conservative. So while Abby was hoping to find joy in Christmas again with a new welcoming family, she’s forced to spend an awkward Christmas with her closeted girlfriend and her family in a small town.
Will Harper ever come out to her family? Will Abby find joy in Christmas again? Will they live happily ever after? AND WHO ELSE HAS A SECRET IN THIS FAMILY?
Christmas Dysfunction And Then Some
(Spoilers follow! You’ve been warned!)
The real problem I have with Happiest Season is that the relationship at its core seems doomed, despite the happy ending the movie suggests.
Let’s for a moment unpack Harper here:
- She lies about having come out to her parents and only mentions it when she’s essentially forced to. What else is she lying about?
- She lied about why her relationship with her first girlfriend ended. If you can’t admit your shortcomings, how can you improve?
- In fact: When the same situation arises, now 10+ years later, she still acts the way she did in high school and denies everything.
- When Abby needs support and comforting, she pushed her away, saying she is “suffocating” her.
As much as I want Abby to be happy and as much as everyone loves a happy ending, these are all flaws that are hard to ignore. Realistically, I doubt Harper is now magically healed of her character flaws. Similarly, it’s hard to accept her family would change as drastically in such short a time as well. My parents were super supportive when I came out to them in my late teens, but there was still a lot of awkwardness on both sides. And they’re not even conservative.
There’s one scene in the movie that did stick out to me. It’s a scene that felt very true to my little gay heart and that felt like it had a sensibility that the rest of the movie lacked. John (played by an adorable Dan Levy) turns out to be a better friend than animal caretaker and drives all the way out to the fancy mansion Abby and Harper are staying at to rescue his friend Abby from the unfortunate situation she finds herself in.
When Abby is heartbroken about the way her Christmas went and how Harper pushed her away, he tells her essentially that coming out is hard and terrifying and it will take some people longer than others.
[T]he one thing all of those [coming out] stories have in common is that moment right before you say those words. When your heart is racing and you don’t know what’s coming next. That moment’s really terrifying. And once you say those words, you can’t un-say them. A chapter has ended, and a new one’s begun. … Just because Harper isn’t ready doesn’t mean she never will be, and it doesn’t mean she doesn’t love you.– John, Happiest Season
This scene really spoke to me and I felt it was a lot more poignant than any talk about being true to yourself or standing up for yourself or not hiding anymore I’ve seen in many other movies.
If only not coming out where Harper’s only flaw, I think I would have been a lot more invested in her. I might have even wanted her to stay together with Abby, rather than hoping against hope that Abby might hook up with Riley in the end.
What Could Have Been Better
I think the movie would have greatly benefitted if Harper’s character had been a bit more fleshed out. Again: As someone who, like most people, was struggling to come out to her parents, even though I was sure they’d be sympathetic, I have endless sympathy for anyone’s struggle to come out. And yet, we never really got to see the pressure she was under.
Sure, I can imagine it’s a bit of a struggle if you’re expected to go to a dinner your girlfriend has been uninvited from. It’s an entirely different thing to carelessly tell her to stay home, and then go out drinking until 2am with your old high school friends.
I think the movie could have benefitted from showing Harper’s struggle more, of her trying to make Abby feel comfortable when her family constantly wants her attention and denies them any privacy. She could have struggled, coming out to her hold high school sweetheart. I would have liked a scene of her apologizing to Riley, too, years after the hell she no doubt put her through.
Instead, sadly, Harper comes off as bit of a selfish jerk and the happiest ending we’re treated to ends up feeling a little bit hollow.
Should You Watch Happiest Season?
Now regarding everything I just wrote, should you watch Happiest Season after all? Absolutely!
Happiest Season may not be perfect, but it’s a lesbian Christmas movie and they are certainly few and far between. The acting is great, the gay best friend is funny, Kristen Stewart wears a suit and tie – what more do you really need? Maybe in a decade we can all look back and turn our nose up at this early gay Christmas movie of the 2020s, but for now, this is what we have. And while it may not be perfect, I do appreciate it for what it is.