Remember that time you thought “If Hallmark just made holiday movies that were a little bit less heteronormative, the holiday season would be perfect!”
You were wrong.
Happiest Season centers on Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis) as a couple who have gotten far enough along in their relationship that they’ve moved in together and, in typical American disapora fashion, still haven’t met each other’s families.
In Harper’s case, this is because they live in a city several hours’ drive away and in Abby’s case, as is repeatedly emphasized to the point that the fact is included every time Harper’s mother introduces Abby to someone, there is no family to meet because both her parents are dead.
Employing the usual holiday movie tropes – a new(ish) couple not entirely secure in their relationship status, family drama and traditions, and a high pressure event (Christmas) – Happiest Season hits all the notes you’d expect from a movie like this. What is unfortunate is how it gets there.
Set-ups for conflict get dropped into the plot the same way kids lost in the woods drop bread crumbs.
Instead of taking the risk and insisting to her mother that because of the packed house for the holidays it’s totally okay if she and Abby share a bed, Harper lets her mother put Abby in the basement bedroom where there is no lock on the door.
You know what happens next, right? In case you don’t, the inevitable scene where someone hides behind a door to avoid being found out may greatly delight you.
Expository dialogue designed to give us backstory in a compressed time frame strips the skilled actors in this cast of any opportunity to convey actual emotion beyond the most broad strokes. And this is the real disappointment of this movie: the leads have almost zero chemistry with each other.
When Harper’s secret high school girlfriend Riley (Aubrey Plaza) shows up as a foil to Abby’s growing irritation over the presence of Harper’s high school boyfriend Connor (Jake McDorman), the sexual tension between Riley and Abby is a welcome relief from wondering what Abby sees in Harper.
When the final emotional confrontation finally arrives it’s a doozy. Everyone spills secrets including that the “poor little orphan” schtick Abby has let drag on is a sham. Her parents died when she was 19 and she has plenty of happy family Christmas memories.
Add to this the ghastly brown wig someone thought to put on Mackenzie Davis, a wig so distracting for the first 20 minutes of the movie I couldn’t watch anything else, and the unearned family acceptance, and you’re left with a deep sense of disappointment. Given the cast and the writer/director (Clea Duvall), it feels like this could have been so much better.
Holiday romantic dramedies already draw their characters and their plots with the most broad-tipped marker. Just switching up some of the circumstances and the sexual orientations of the main characters doesn’t improve on that quality.
While it’s great to see more representation on screen, I fear that all Happiest Season has done is show us that movies with LGBTQ characters in the leads can be just as awful as movies where we don’t exist at all.