“Happiest Season” tells new story while adopting tried and true tropes

"Happiest Season" is a twist on the classic Christmas romcom. Courtesy of Hulu/Fair Use

By Kendall Tamer
BU News Service

Hulu’s newest holiday film, “Happiest Season” is a glorified Hallmark Christmas movie — in all the best ways! With its comforting tropes, not-so-believable happenings and colorful characters all coming together in a warm and fuzzy conclusion, this zany and bright dramedy embodies all the sentimental makings of a classic Hallmark film — if these movies included a little more diversity. “Happiest Season” is not groundbreaking, but it doesn’t need to be. Not every LGBTQ+ film needs to be serious cinema, and even the movie genres and movies that some critics may call “corny” or “tacky” deserve representation.

Hallmark Christmas movies have been a staple of the holiday season for many, to the point where they have been parodied and mocked in popular culture. They often begin with a successful, city slicking child (typically a daughter) returning home for Christmas to either introduce a new partner, self-soothe after the recent loss of one, or find another, while the rest of the family steeps in hardships and dysfunctions of their own. Inevitably, all of these factors come to a head, before perfectly resolving themselves for everyone. “Happiest Season” mirrors this formula, and while that may sound like a bad thing, it isn’t. 

Viewers enjoy the formulaic and nostalgic nature of these films because viewers know that, no matter the twists, there will be a happy ending. Unfortunately, these films usually play out a happy ending for only certain types of people, typically white, straight and middle class. “Happiest Season” finally gives the spotlight to something different, and it’s not just the storyline that breaks the mold. The director, Clea DuVall, and most of the cast are queer, including Kristen Stewart, Dan Levy and the delightful Aubrey Plaza. It was so refreshing, and (okay, it’s cheesy, but I don’t care) heartwarming, to see the LGBTQ+ experience represented in a film where their stories were told honestly, while also giving them the happy ending many of them never get a chance to have. 

Our story begins with girlfriends, Abby, played by Stewart, and Harper, played by Mackenzie Davis, as they walk down candy cane lane together in Pittsburgh, Pa. This is one of their last nights together for the holidays, since Harper is going to see her parents, and Abby, who hates Christmas and whose parents died when she was 19, is staying in the city to pet sit for all the friends who have families to return to for the festivities. But the lights and cheer make Harper feel extra hopeful, and she implores Abby to come home with her for Christmas. Abby agrees and makes a deal with her gay best friend, John, portrayed by Levy of “Schitt’s Creek” fame, to watch her friends’ pets in her stead. 

Things worked out perfectly, right? Well, there’s just one problem: Harper hasn’t told her parents that Abby is her girlfriend because they don’t know that their daughter is gay. Harper has told them the two girls are platonic, heterosexual roommates. Enroute, Harper conveniently persuades Abby to go along with her charade, and the two of them team up in lying to Mr. and Mrs. Caldwell.

Upon arriving at her girlfriend’s childhood home, Abby quickly learns that Harper barely resembles the girl that she wanted to propose to on Christmas morning. Her parents are perfectionists, and have fostered a competitive relationship between Harper and her older sisters. Her father is running for mayor, and in order to get the donation he needs for his campaign, everyone and everything needs to be absolutely perfect. That’s a tall order when Harper is struggling to keep a secret, especially when the heart of the secret–her lesbian girlfriend–is holed up in a basement spare room without a lock on it. 

Not only that, but Harper’s exes keep popping up, including high school sweetheart, Connor, and worse yet, spurned first love Riley, played by Plaza. Due to Harper’s continued lies and vapid behavior, Abby starts to question their entire relationship. And then, the unthinkable happens! Yes, you guessed it, Harper’s family finds out the truth and, in a tearful display, Harper finally comes out to her parents. Everyone kisses and makes up, and they all live “happily ever after.” 

Now, it may sound from this description like maybe I did not like this film. That is not at all the case. In fact, I completely adored it. Sure, some critics may say that the “coming out story” is a tired one. It does feel like a lot of the LGBTQ+ media that has been hitting the mainstream lately seems to follow similar patterns of the “deceitful” gay character or this typical coming out story. 

But what made this story stand out to me was that it was just so human. Yes, there are more serious movies like “Call Me By Your Name” or “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” and no, “Happiest Season” probably isn’t on its way to the Oscars. But it took a trope, like the coming out trope, and adapted it into something that, while kind of silly and mostly meant to be entertaining, had a pretty poignant impact on me as a viewer. 

In particular, the film emphasized a story we don’t get to hear as often: what it’s like to come out as an adult in the 21st century. Sure, we have stories like “Love, Simon” that parallel this idea, but those characters are in high school, at the time in their lives where you’re typically “coming of age” for one reason or another. By making Harper a grown woman, still paralyzed at the thought of telling her parents about her homosexuality, we get a slice of life that shows how, even though not everyone can have their big coming out moment at 16, that is totally okay — because no matter when you come out, you can still get a happy ending, too, and everyone’s coming out story is different. 

Which brings me to possibly the most important part of the movie. When Abby leaves the Caldwell’s, sick of being hidden and thinking she and Harper are through, John is there. While Abby cries, he comforts her, and then he asks Abby a question. 

“What did your parents say when you told them you were gay?”

To which Abby responds that they took it well, and they said they loved and supported her.

“That’s amazing,” John says back to her. “My dad kicked me out of the house and didn’t talk to me for 13 years after I told him. Everybody’s story is different. There’s your version, and my version, and everything in between.” 

He continues by saying what any good friend would know she needs to hear: Abby is not the reason Harper is scared to be honest with her parents and that, no matter who you are or what the outcome is, coming out is always terrifying. This moment is a profound one, and, although the conversation occurs outside with the backdrop of a peaceful winter’s night, it is the culmination of almost every conflict between Harper and Abby before this point. It represents the experiences of so many like John, or like Abby, and it brought tears to my eyes. Hands down, this was the most powerful part of the film and is the scene that sets it apart from your typical Hallmark Christmas movie. 

Of course, the film still had its flaws. Harper getting Abby on board with her facade was a little too easy; the scene was extremely unconvincing. Not only that, but the appearance of the ex-boyfriend Connor seemed a little shallow and unnecessary to the plot. 

Perhaps the biggest flaw of all was how flat Harper felt as a character. The beginning of the film feels like it was meant to establish her as a loving and warm girlfriend, and we’re supposed to go into the film rooting for her despite her shortcomings and misgivings throughout. However, a single romantic moment of Abby and Harper sneaking up onto a roof to gaze down at candy cane lane together, while adorable, is not enough to sustain an entire character, and the film leans really heavily on this one set-up scene to cast Harper in a positive light and make she and Abby’s relationship seem good and “ideal.” 

Unfortunately, that is a lot to ask of one scene, and this loving character and great relationship didn’t always translate well for me throughout the film because of some of Harper’s contrary actions. In the light of the morning after Harper invites Abby to Christmas, not even ten minutes into the film, Harper is already visibly uncomfortable and trying to back out on her invitation, and things get even worse once they arrive at Harper’s home. Harper ignores Abby and makes time for her old friends instead, sending Abby to go shopping alone with her crazy sister, Sloan, and doesn’t rise to Abby’s defense after an incident with a mall cop, for which Harper’s family treats Abby like a criminal.

Perhaps Harper’s lack of depth only stood out to me so much because of how likable all of the other characters were. Two ensemble members who stood out to me as some of the best were Harper’s kooky sister Jane, and, of course, John. While Harper’s grudge with her older sister Sloan is obvious from the get-go and results in some entertaining antics, the third sister and “black sheep” of the family is by far the best of the trio. She is wholesome and quirky, loves painting and cookies, is working on a fantasy novel that she will tell anyone and everyone about in great detail, and she just wants to be included by the rest of her family. 

John, the surrogate pet sitter who gives the poignant coming out speech, is obviously just as charming. The character is sardonic in the beginning, lovingly mocking Abby’s “heteronormative tendencies” and accidentally killing someone’s fish. By the end of the movie, he became absolutely one of my favorite characters. He is overly intuitive in the way only a fictional best friend can be, and he gives Abby exactly what she needs right when she needs it the most. 

Abby was a more fleshed out character than Harper, and everyone else in the cast was so memorable, it made Harper’s blandness and lack of clear motive even more obvious.. The best example of this is when Harper stays out at the bar until 2 a.m. with her high school ex-boyfriend. Her mother has repeatedly invited him to gatherings with the hope that they would get back together, but it’s confusing what motivated her to stay out with him. And why does she get mad at Abby when she asks her about it the next morning? She tells Abby she’s “suffocating her.” This is puzzling considering that Abby has done nothing but give continued support, even after Harper has made her repeatedly lie about their relationship and her own sexual identity. Harper even invites Abby to join them at the bar but then ignores Abby all evening to talk to Connor. Abby leaves because she feels abandoned, and she doesn’t argue with Harper when Harper says she wants to stay. So, how is this smothering? Harper does apologize for the outburst later, but none of the other behavior leading up to it.

This whole bit of the film is muddled and lacked any real characterization for Harper besides, quite frankly, portraying her as a bad and rather inconsiderate person. Some critics felt that Abby had more chemistry with Harper’s ex-girlfriend, Riley. A few viewers took to Twitter to express this, commending Plaza’s acting and saying things like, “when you like the villain better than the protagonist.” However, I didn’t share this opinion. While, yes, Harper got on my nerves, and my support of her and Abby did waver here and there, ultimately, I did not want Abby with Riley. I, of course, wanted her and Harper to work it out. Or else, it’s not the perfect Hallmark movie conclusion, is it? Even if Abby were to ride off into the sunset with Riley — as Plaza herself said she wished the ending would have been — if the main couple breaks up it isn’t really “happily ever after.”

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