Review: Happiest Season Misses a Chance to Bring Depth, Heart to a Memorable Holiday Family Gathering

As fun as it can be to revisit holiday favorites year after year, it's always nice to see new festive films make their way into the world this time of year. While some quickly become new classics, others aren't quite so lucky. Marking her sophomore feature film, Clea Duvall presents Happiest Season, a contemporary Christmas romantic comedy that would seem to have all the ingredients for the former: solid ensemble cast, clever family drama, and plenty of wit and one-liners. Unfortunately, the sum of the film's very promising parts never quite add up to something one might want to find wrapped up underneath the tree. Despite all it has going for it, the film never quite finds its groove, its timing just a beat behind what it needs to be and its characters ultimately just facsimiles of the "modern family" they're intended to be. Last seen in another clunker of a film where her performance was one of the only bright spots (that's Seberg, for those of you keeping track at home), Kristen Stewart stars in Happiest Season as Abby, who—despite her professed aversion to all things Christmas—agrees to go to her girlfriend's home for the holidays. Harper (Mackenzi Davis) is close with her mother Tipper (Mary Steenburgen), father Ted (Victor Garber) and sisters Sloane (Alison Brie) and Jane (Mary Holland), a conservative but well-meaning family who just happen to have no idea that Harper is gay, let alone in a committed relationship with a woman. Abby only finds this out herself on the drive to the family home, throwing out the window her entire plan to ask Ted for his blessing to ask Harper to marry her. Against her better judgement, Abby agrees to be Harper's orphan roommate for the duration of their visit, to allow Harper to come out to her family on her own time. That the main thrust of the film is Harper's coming out journey at all is a bit tired; it's undeniably a momentous moment for anyone facing it, one surely worth more care and attention than the stodgy, staged "fight" she and Sloane engage in when everyone's secrets finally do get unwrapped...but I'm getting ahead of myself. Credited as a co-writer with Mary Holland, Duvall takes her time getting us to the moment when the truth comes out, and it certainly feels like it takes forever. From the moment they arrive, Harper and Abby can't escape Ted and Tipper's served-with-a-smile stuffiness, Joan's oddball energy or Sloane's desperate need to please. Ted is running for political office, complicating Harper's coming out plans even more (because god forbid a politician have a gay kid?!), and Tipper's annual White Elephant gift exchange party means Abby has to figure out a suitable gift for someone (anyone) she just met. Because no rom-com is complete without a best friend and an ex, both find their way into Happiest Season, the former in the form of Dan Levy's John and the latter in Aubrey Plaza's Riley. Playing a slightly more clichéd version of his "Schitt$ Creek" character, Levy is nearly forgettable even as he tries with everything he's got to land a joke. More impressive is Plaza's turn as Harper's first real girlfriend, a young woman Harper denied and humiliated when their secret high school romance was revealed. Abby learns about Harper's past not from her girlfriend directly but instead from Riley, apparently the only person in the whole film capable of emotional depth. The scene makes it all too clear just how repressed Harper really is, even if only around her family, and Abby would've been entirely forgiven for hailing a rideshare back to the city right then and there. Instead, the rest of the film is spent in predictable, perfectly non-threatening dramatic pursuits like why aren't Sloane and her seemingly perfect husband getting along? and will Ted get the endorsement he needs from the town's major donor (Ana Gasteyer) to win his election? There's an inherent conflict in the idea of a young woman coming out to her conservative parents, people she's spent her life trying to impress in order to earn their love. And yet, Duvall's version of conservatism feels like a caricature, like some watered-down version of people who truly take deep moral issue with homosexuality. Those conservatives surely wouldn't come around as easily as Ted and Tipper do. Without the possibility that her parents won't accept Harper's relationship with Abby (it's never stated, but we just know it), it all feels too inevitable to care too much about any of it. There's absolutely nothing wrong with happy endings, but holiday films from It's a Wonderful Life to The Family Stone manage to take us to fairly dark places before they eventually come around, all of it making their final scenes even sweeter. For all its sharp wit, silly gags and even a few sincere performances, Happiest Season never even tries to get nearly as deep as it could have. Happiest Season is now streaming on Hulu.

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Lisa Trifone