Movie Review: Happiest Season
By Matthew Huntley
December 4, 2020
Much like one of its heroines, “Happiest Season” hovers between identities. On the one hand, it’s a semi-intelligent, semi-believable and all around likable comedy about the members of an upper class, image-conscious family learning to accept one another as they are. On the other, it’s a lowbrow slapstick comprised of flat comic bits that don’t really amount to anything. The movie wants to be “smart & progressive” and “broad & safe” at the same time, and while it ultimately proves it can be both and still win us over, we wish it would have focused more on its intelligence and credibility and less on its frivolity and inane physical high jinks.
Broadly speaking, this is another of those dysfunctional family holiday comedies during which everyone comes home for Christmas with the intention of spreading love and joy but actually ends up airing out their dirty laundry, not to mention opening old wounds. Hollywood delivers us one of these zany ensemble pieces practically every year and we know the drill by heart: parents, kids, significant others, etc. all gather together, put on a front, keep secrets, and remain passive aggressive toward one another until everything comes to a head during an important event. And more often than not, a physical altercation ensues, food gets thrown, furniture tumbles over, and lots of things break. “Happiest Season” fits right in among “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” “The Family Stone,” and “This Christmas” (among others), so those looking for a familiar yet feel-good comedy affair will easily be satisfied.
That being said, “Happiest Season” also finds ways to stand out from the flock. For starters, its two main characters, Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis), are in a lesbian relationship. Abby is a PhD student at Carnegie Melon and Harper is a journalist for a reputable Pittsburgh newspaper. Life is good for the two of them and Stewart and Davis are particularly convincing as a couple; they exhibit good chemistry and we believe Abby and Harper are really in love, which makes the movie’s subsequent events carry more weight.
The plot kicks in when Harper hastily invites Abby home to her parents’ house for Christmas. It’s hasty because Harper has not yet come out to her well-to-do, conservative parents, Ted (Victor Garber) and Tipper (Mary Steenburgen), who she bets will not take the news very well, especially when Ted, a city councilman, is running for mayor and needs his family to maintain a traditional, squeaky clean image.
Abby is hurt and taken aback by Harper’s “second face” but agrees to come anyway and pretend she’s nothing more than Harper’s straight, strictly platonic friend and roommate. Harper believes this will be a credible sell to her family given that Abby’s parents died and therefore she has no one else with whom to spend Christmas. The screenplay by Clea Duvall, who also directed, and Mary Holland exhausts this latter point by having the other characters constantly console Abby for being an orphan, even though she was 19 when her parents passed (illustrating the film’s tendency to stretch its humor too far).
Tensions rise once Abby and Harper arrive at Ted and Tipper’s impractically large home and the movie introduces us to the rest of its colorful clan. Tipper is welcoming albeit strict and critical. As the quintessential wife of a politician, she’s extremely orderly and efficient, giving precise instructions and making sure everyone sticks to their assigned rooms (when Harper suggests she and Abby share, Tipper fires back, “I would never ask two grown women to share a bed!”). She’s also adamant about capturing all of the next five days’ Instagram-able moments on her iPad in order to paint the family as nothing short of perfect, just in time for the upcoming election.
We also meet Harper’s two, real-piece-of-work older sisters. The touchy-feely Jane (Mary Holland) is jolly, jumpy and a wannabe artist. She’ll be the first to tell you about the fantasy novel she’s been writing for the last 10 years, although the family treats her less like someone who’s creative and more like a hired technician.
Then there’s Sloane (Alison Brie), who’s cold, abrasive and married to Eric (Burl Moseley). She’s bitter and resentful because her law career was cut short when she got pregnant and now has a twin boy and girl (Anis and Asiyih N’Dobe) to raise. She and Eric have settled on making gift baskets for a living, or as Sloane curtly says, “We create curated gift experiences inside of handmade reclaimed wood vessels.” Harper and Sloane have a particularly rocky relationship — they’re constantly trading verbal and physical jabs and we wish the movie allotted more time to flush out their past because we don’t really know why they’re so nasty to each other.
Rounding out the cast is Dan Levy (fresh off his Emmy wins for TV’s “Schitt’s Creek”) as John, Abby’s gay friend who agrees to take over her pet babysitting duties while she’s away. He also acts as Abby’s moral support during her quasi-“meet the parents” misadventure as she pretends to be someone she’s not and must bear witness to Harper, the supposed love of her life, putting on a façade because she’s too afraid to tell her family she likes women. What’s refreshing about Levy’s character, and the way Levy plays him, is he’s not just someone the script cuts away to in order to shake things up. John has a bigger role to play, as we’ll see, and he also lends the movie some of its biggest laughs, not to mention its lasting heartfelt messages, thanks to his timing, delivery and mannerisms.
Given this set of characters and their situations, we know it’s only a matter of time before the screenplay starts to check off its inevitabilities, which is to say Abby and Harper’s ruse starts to unravel and everybody’s else’s secrets and frustrations get let out of the bag. And because this an ensemble romantic comedy, we have a sneaking suspicion all the big reveals will take place in front of a large crowd, at which point Abby and Harper’s, not to mention the rest of the family’s, love will get truly tested. Although I would have welcomed fresher inevitabilities, I was still fine with the way “Happiest Season” rolled out toward its mostly foregone conclusion, because for all its cliches and machinations, the movie deals with Abby and Harper’s central dilemma tastefully, sensitively and sincerely.
There’s a particularly thoughtful and genuine scene shared between Stewart and Aubrey Plaza, who plays Riley, Harper’s ex-girlfriend. A lesser movie would have automatically pitted Abby and Riley against each other, but Riley is given more dimension than we expect. She relates a painful memory to Abby and we can tell Stewart the actress is really listening to Riley’s words, and so are we. Their exchange adds an unforeseen layer and truth to the film, one we wish Duvall would have expounded more because it really gives “Happiest Season” something to say about honesty and homophobia.
But, like I said, the movie feels the need to hover between its two identities, and its other one is the less interesting. For all of its attentive and genuinely amusing scenes, there are a handful of others that feel extraneous and directionless. One of these involves Abby hanging from the eavestroughs and accidentally looking in on a dominatrix sex act. Another finds Abby trying to sneak up to Harper’s room, only to end up in the utility closet and accidentally turn on the Roomba. We also get Harper and Sloane racing each other around the ice skating rink and running into other people, which goes nowhere,, and eventually Abby getting framed for robbery, only to be interrogated by two buffoonish mall cops (Timothy Simons and Lauren Lapkus). All of these scenes end abruptly and prove more distracting than anything else. In fact, they seem to have been tossed in just to lighten the mood and to be able to legitimately sell “Happiest Season” as a wacky comedy as well as a down-to-earth one. It would have been better off just being down-to-earth.
Fortunately, its comedic misfires are short and innocuous enough that they don’t take away from the movie; they simply don’t add anything to it. Overall, there’s still enough relatable family tension, emotion and uplifting messages to make “Happiest Season” a keeper. And despite the ending wrapping all the plot threads up too quickly and neatly, it’s pleasant, hopeful and moving just the same. For all its imperfections, the movie makes us feel warm and welcomed and we’re happy to let it. After all, it’s in the title.