Movie Poster- Courtesy of “Pretty in Baby Food”
Overall, “The Happiest Season” made me laugh, cry, and (somewhat) put me in the Christmas spirit. However, there were a lot of issues I had with the movie as a queer person. Also, I want to disclose that I can certainly not speak for all LGBTQ+ people, especially as someone who has the privilege of being white and not identifying as transgender. Warning: Major Spoilers Ahead!
First, from a film standpoint, the movie was pretty good and definitely worth a watch. It follows the adventures of a young couple, played by Kristen Stewart (Abby) and Mackenzie Davis (Harper). The premise of Abby being orphaned and Harper making an effort to re-engage her in Christmas is a promising plotline, and it definitely helps build up the significance of their trip home to both parties involved.
John, played by the incredible Dan Levy, is an icon and deserves recognition for the way he delivers little bits of humor, filling out the comedic aspect of the movie. However, he is used to introduce the plotline that Abby plans to propose to Harper. This addition creates unnecessary complications to the plot later on and overall doesn’t really add much to the movie.
Next, Harper’s family dynamic is very well presented, with the character of Jane offering another dose of comedy and realism. Viewers, upon watching Harper’s family interact, will definitely understand her reluctance to shatter the family’s vision of “perfection.” Alison Brie, as usual, shows off her incredible acting range.
Jane, frequently undervalued by her family, gets her redemption scene at the end and proves to everyone that she is worth a lot more than they let her be. This scene will have viewers cheering with her from their couches. Her friendship with John afterwards is adorable, but a small part of me wishes they had made John bisexual (or something along those lines) so that he and Jane could have ended up as a couple.
The various obstacles that arrive are a bit tedious, but passable because they contribute to the normalization of lesbian romantic-comedies. In fact, a good chunk of the movie falls under that assessment.
So, overall, “The Happiest Season” was a nice movie that definitely made me laugh and was easy to follow. In terms of its queer representation, it was more of a mixed bag.
The movie starts out with a very cute, quintessentially rom-com-esque scene of the lesbian couple sneaking on to a stranger’s roof to kiss and share a romantic moment. While this was adorable, it was unrealistic because no queer person is going to sneak onto someone’s roof with their partner, as that is how one gets hate-crimed in suburbia (I’m only half-joking). Although, they then reconciled this scene with the owners of the house calling them “perverts,” while donning BDSM garments, a true testament to the predatory stereotype associated with the LGBTQ+ people.
Furthermore, I love that they show Abby and Harper kissing on multiple occasions. While this may seem trivial to straight people, the physical touch aspect of queer relationships is often played down in media, and sometimes even used as a climax at the end of the movie built up by lingering stares and whatnot. Gay people deserve to see happy and healthy expressions of sexuality on television, and this movie did a great job of that (other than the weird “sexy” picture that Harper sent to Abby, which just looked like she dropped her phone with her shirt slightly undone. But I digress).
Abby’s friendship with John is well-written, authentic, and a nice twist on the “gay best friend” trope. The debate that they have over the concept of marriage as patriarchal is one that many queer people have had, and it was extremely relatable to watch.
Once Abby and Harper arrive at the latter’s house for Christmas, things get really dicey. Everyone is allowed to come out on their own terms. However, Harper reveals to Abby that she has been lying to her for many months. They are in the car when she admits that she never actually came out to her family, contrary to what she had previously told her girlfriend. Abby has deep emotional trauma surrounding the holiday because of her parents’ death. Nevertheless, Harper still opts to throw this twist on her when she is already halfway to their destination and can’t realistically get out of the situation.
Once they arrive, Harper explains that Abby, too, must go back in the closet for the trip. This is toxic, unfair, and certainly not good representation for queer adolescents watching this. Now, we do see from Harper’s family’s behavior that they have some heterosexist tendencies, and had Abby’s closeting been introduced as a safety mechanism rather than a favor to Harper, my opinion would likely be different.
Again, the “sex” scene of the film does a perfect job depicting lesbian sexuality, while not objectifying the act or straying from the classic, rom-com trope of cutting the camera after they get on the bed.
Harper quickly becomes more distant and regresses into her high school state, further alienating Abby. Riley strikes up a “friendship” with Abby over their shared frustration of being closeted by Harper. I put friendship in quotation marks because they have palpable sexual chemistry, most notably seen when they share the same side of a booth in the drag bar.
Riley was Harper’s secret girlfriend in high school, before Harper was caught with a love note and decided to paint Riley (played by the lovely Aubrey Plaza) as a pervert who was obsessed with her and in a one-sided relationship. Here we learn example two of Harper using her fear of coming out to hurt other people, thus making her reluctance to do so less forgivable.
The director and writer of “The Happiest Season,” is Clea DuVall, a lesbian known for her role in “But I’m a Cheerleader.” Having queer writers is crucial! Not to mention that three-quarters of the LGBTQ+ characters are played by LGBTQ+ actors, another important aspect. Anyway, I bring that fact up because the scene where Abby and Riley interact at a party is so honestly done that one call tell it was written and acted by those familiar with being queer. Both of their reluctances to bring up the matter at hand, the difficult way they try to navigate their conversation, and the matching blazers all ring true for WLW watching the movie.
Then, after a disaster of a White Elephant gift exchange and a possible breaking up of Harper and Abby, John and the latter go outside and share one of the best-written scenes in queer cinema, enough to bring me and my mother to tears. My mom has always been fairly supportive of LGBTQ+ rights, despite a prolonged adjustment period after my coming out, and it seems that the following scene brought a lot of emotions back to both of us. Abby reveals that her late parents were exceptionally supportive of her after she told them she was gay. John, on the other hand, explains that his dad kicked him out of the house and did not talk to him for over a decade afterwards. He then says:
“Everybody’s story is different. There’s your version and my version and everything in between. But the one thing that all of those 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 then once you say those words, you can’t unsay them. A chapter has ended, and a new one’s begun, and you have to be ready for that. You can’t do it for anyone else.”
These lines hit me like a bus. It is absolutely true that there are coming out stories on all facets of the spectrum of acceptance, but even kids from the most liberal of families are never quite sure what’s going to happen when the truth is revealed. It is almost always terrifying, and this scene perfectly encapsulates the complex and unforgettable moment of coming out. My mother notably commented, “It just makes me so sad that you and your friends have had to go through that.” In response to John’s speech, almost as importantly, Abby explains, “I want to be with someone who is ready.” Harper isn’t ready to start a life openly as a lesbian, which is fine as long as she is not hurting others in the process. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what she has done to both Riley and now Abby.
In my opinion, after this scene, Abby should’ve nicely ended the relationship with Harper and either gotten together with Riley, met someone else, or went off as a powerful individual. Unfortunately, that’s not what happens. They opted to continue with a toxic (and borderline manipulative) relationship. While it is important to show queer couples in a way that is as dysfunctional as their straight counterparts, this went beyond that standard.
Harper’s subsequent apology to Riley for the torment she subjected her to in high school was cathartic for anyone who faced some kind of harassment in their youth, especially if it was on the basis of their (or the bully’s) sexuality. This, as well as the perfectly dramatic “winning her back” scene that followed, were well written and adherent to the romantic-comedy genre. When they reunite in the gas station parking lot, I couldn’t help but root for the couple I had actively voted against for most of the movie.
At the end, Harper’s secret is unsurprisingly revealed, and her somewhat supportive family uses the opportunity to reveal their own “secrets,” which are problematically paralleled to Harper’s sexuality, such as a desire to learn karate and a secret marriage separation.
While the parents don’t react perfectly to Harper coming out, I actually admire the way the movie handled this. It was not completely embracing, but also not an openly homophobic response. This balance is one that I imagine many people who have come out navigated as well, including myself.
Overall, “The Happiest Season” was maybe not everything gay people needed, but it’s what we got, and it certainly could’ve been worse. I do agree with the consensus that queer people are sick of every instance of representation being centered around coming out. However, I see this as somewhat of an exception because the holidays are a rough time for those in the closet, and the unfortunate reality is that many deal with this issue a lot on Christmas.
DuVall’s film was heartwarming and heartbreaking. Would I have changed some things? Yes. But am I still happy I watched this? Also, yes, and I will probably watch it again. “The Happiest Season” did a good job with a lot of aspects on LGBTQ+ experiences, and was altogether a worthwhile viewing, but often tended to miss the mark on the center relationship. You can stream “The Happiest Season” on Hulu today.