‘Happiest Season’: Heteronormativity Be Damned [Review]
Before its November 25th release had even hit, Clea DuVall’s sophomore feature Happiest Season was already drumming up debate online. As a holiday film, comparisons to Hallmark movies were inevitable and swift, but unlike The Christmas House or A New York Christmas Wedding, DuVall’s film was criticized for those comparisons. In their C- review for IndieWire, Jude Dry remarks, “Rather than being a queer film, which connotes a political or at least somewhat subversive perspective, ‘Happiest Season’ is a definitively lesbian movie.” Without going into the italicization of the word “lesbian,” I would adamantly disagree and argue that DuVall’s film is uniquely subversive by combining classic rom-com conventions with an unabashedly queer (and proudly lesbian) approach to filmmaking.
Following Abby (Kristen Stewart) as she navigates the unspoken rules and uptight atmosphere of her closeted girlfriend Harper’s (Mackenzie Davis) conservative family home over Christmas, Happiest Season, as a film, plays straight just like its characters do. It is about assimilation as much as it is about accepting oneself fully. Self-aware from its first scenes, DuVall and co-writer Mary Holland directly confront heteronormative assumptions by imbuing explicit queerness and openly queer artists throughout. With songs by Shea Diamond, Tegan and Sara, LP, Carlie Hanson, Jake Wesley Rogers, BAYLI, kennedi, and Anne-Marie; appearances by drag queens Jinkx Monsoon and BenDeLaCreme; and performances by openly queer actors such as Kristen Stewart, Victor Garber, Dan Levy, and Aubrey Plaza, DuVall both provides a massive platform for queer talent (along with a presumably hefty paycheck) and allows LGBTQ+ viewers to see their own authentic experiences and struggles onscreen as represented through her distinctly queer vision.
Coming-out narratives are not new, but they are a central part of most queer and trans peoples’ lives, and, as we move toward a more variegated landscape of queer and trans filmmaking, they should not be abandoned. Sure, Happiest Season feels familiar; it’s playing with a narrative arc we’ve seen in many earlier romantic comedies, but that doesn’t inherently mean it lacks a political or subversive bent. Its premise centralizes heteronormativity by design, but only so DuVall and Holland can subsequently tear it all down with their subtly sharp screenplay.
When Dan Levy’s character John chastises Abby for wanting a marriage and the approval of her girlfriend’s family early on in the film ("Abby, you and Harper have a perfect relationship. Why do you want to ruin that by engaging in one of the most archaic institutions in the human race?"), that is DuVall and Holland preparing for these exact criticisms. Abby's response, "Because I want to marry her," is all we need to hear to begin breaking down those arguments. Agency is radical, even in a historically homophobic system. Yes, Happiest Season is about white and wealthy people, but only to milk and skew that very privilege for the purposes of both comedy and salient political criticism. Few modern films or filmmakers are as eagerly or accessibly satirizing propriety and decorum like Happiest Season and Clea DuVall.
Beyond its politics, Happiest Season is funny, awkward, touching, predictable, smart, and über gay. It can be all of those things at once, just as queer people are not and should not be pigeonholed in any kind of edgy box. By appealing to the masses while remaining true to her own lived experiences as an out and proud queer woman, DuVall pulls off something much more revolutionary and, dare I say, queer than most filmmakers even dream of accomplishing with their work. When Alice Wu considered whether she wanted Netflix to distribute The Half of It, what helped clarify that choice was the accessibility that the platform provided. She knew that there were socially conservative people out there who would never go to a theater to see her queer teenage rom-com, but they might at home. In this year of profound trauma, mourning, and alienation, a family-friendly movie by and starring queer people has the potential to be one of the biggest movies of the year, and here we are tearing it down for not being radical enough.
Instead of picking apart the perceived conventionality of Happiest Season, I urge critics to celebrate it for what it is: a tidily constructed, cozy movie that allows its extraordinary cast to shine. Holland, whose contributions to the script should not go ignored, is the clear scene-stealer as Harper’s off-beat and under-appreciated sister, Jane. Plaza, whose starring role in the upcoming Black Bear is not to be missed, adds another surprising, layered performance to her already incredibly varied filmography as Harper's not-so-secret ex-girlfriend Riley. And Mary Steenburgen, as the excruciatingly judgmental matriarch of the Caldwell family, is the comedic lynchpin that keeps this film on track to succeed.
Of course, it will be branded as cheesy by many, but is that a bad thing? After decades of both formulaic, highly praised heterosexual romantic comedies and formulaic, highly praised lesbian tragedies, why can’t the queers dabble in this joyous, festive world too? We deserve happy endings and light fare just as much as we deserved complicated, nuanced, and messy portrayals of our communities. It's thrilling that we are finally able to have both, and I hope more queer people can see this as the win that it is.