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Film Review: “Happiest Season” Falters but Still Delivers Holiday Cheer

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | November 24th, 2020

Film poster: “Happiest Season”

Happiest Season (Clea DuVall, 2020) 2½ out of 4 stars.

Twentysomethings Abby and Harper are two women deeply in love, living a romantic idyll in Pittsburgh, where one is a journalist and the other a graduate student. With Christmas approaching, Harper invites Abby, whose parents are dead, to come home with her. Abby has long hated Christmas, but wants to meet her partner’s family, so decides to go, if reluctantly. Just as they are about to arrive, however, Harper informs Abby that she has not, in fact, come out to anyone in her hometown, relatives included. The stage is therefore set for a most unhappy celebration. Thus begins Happiest Season, the second feature from actress-turned-director Clea DuVall (The Intervention), starring Kristen Stewart (Seberg) as Abby and Mackenzie Davis (Terminator: Dark Fate) as Harper, offering yet another entry in the family-is-hell genre of holiday movies. If not always successful as either comedy or drama, it has just enough sparkle in both areas to eke out a cinematic win of sorts.

The story has two primary flaws. Homophobia still very much exists in our world, and I’m sure it is rampant in many places, yet it’s not as if the idea of being gay would be an alien concept to anyone, even the residents of the relatively small Pennsylvania town we see here. Harper’s white-bread mom and dad have no apparent issue with their African American son-in-law and biracial grandchildren (courtesy of another daughter), so we know they live in the same 21st century as the rest of us. The fear that Harper feels at the very thought of revealing her sexuality therefore seems like it belongs in a movie from 20 years ago.

l-r: Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis in HAPPIEST SEASON ©Hulu

Then there is the central relationship, which never quite has time to establish itself before entering crisis mode. In order for us to believe that Abby would, under any circumstances, accept the regressive terms that Harper suddenly imposes on her, we need to see more of their actual love. Instead, we are thrust into the middle of a fraught drama without enough of a foundation to support its backstory. Abby keeps reassuring herself, despite her acute disappointment, that she loves Harper, which is why she stays, but telling is not the same as showing. As it stands, for much of the movie, Harper appears unworthy of Abby’s devotion.

Those significant criticisms aside, however, Happiest Season has other treats on offer, thanks to a mostly appealing supporting cast, including Alison Brie (The Rental), Dan Levy (David Rose on Amazon’s Schitt’s Creek), Victor Garber (Rebel in the Rye), Mary Holland (Greener Grass), Burl Moseley (Jim Kittsworth on Netflix’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), Aubrey Plaza (Ingrid Goes West) and Mary Steenburgen (Book Club), not to mention the adorable young duo of Anis and Asiyih N’Dobe. Each ably manages the jokes thrown their way, keeping the film’s fortunes alive even when the screenplay falters. And despite the awkwardness of Abby and Harper’s interactions, we never doubt Happiest Season’s commitment to validating their right be together. In the final moments, DuVall also redeems some of her earlier missteps, leaving us with both a hearty laugh and meaningful tear. It’s not perfect, but it’s certainly entertainment.

Aubrey Plaza in HAPPIEST SEASON ©Hulu
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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is a former cohost of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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