‘Happiest Season’ review: Star-studded cast comes ‘out’ for the holidays
This is the year TV finally made the Yuletide gay: Along with this sparkly rom-com from Hulu, Hallmark and Lifetime are debuting same-sex holiday flicks. But “Happiest Season” (available to stream starting Nov. 25) boasts the highest-wattage cast by far, with Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis starring as a couple attempting to squeeze back into the closet for the holidays.
Stewart plays very much to type as Abby, a low-key Pittsburgh grad student who rolls her eyes at the Christmas season. But her live-in girlfriend Harper (Davis, from television’s “Halt and Catch Fire” and the most recent “Terminator” movie) insists they spend the week celebrating with Harper’s family — then, en route, drops the bomb that she hasn’t come out to them yet. Harper’s dad (Victor Garber) is running for mayor of their town, and apparently having a lesbian daughter isn’t on his wish list. Thus the setup: Abby must pretend she’s just a roommate, and Harper that she’s straight and single.
“Happiest Season” fits perfectly in the wheelhouse of wacky-big-family Christmas movies, and Harper’s house becomes a beehive of dysfunction as the clan gathers. Alison Brie plays Sloane, Hunter’s type-A sister consumed by Goop-aspirational motherhood, while the very funny Mary Holland (writing partner of director Clea DuVall) is their oddball sibling Jane. Mary Steenburgen radiates manic energy as the mom who relentlessly tries to get that perfect group photo.
Harper’s cover story for Abby — that she’s an orphan with nowhere to go for the holiday — seems a little Dickensian for this modern movie, but Stewart’s tight smile every time someone looks at her with teary-eyed pity, or relegates her to the wonky chair at the family table, is reliably amusing. Stewart and Davis have a fizzy chemistry as they try to live a double life during their five-day stint at the family home, and it’s nice to see a mainstream rom-com that doesn’t shy away from smooching between its female leads.
A surprisingly earnest Aubrey Plaza appears as a former love of Harper’s, now a family friend who bears the scars of teen betrayal. But it’s Dan Levy (“Schitt’s Creek”) who’s MVP of this film as Abby’s pal John. He’s a fantastic riff on the gay-best-friend role, which plays very differently when your leads are lesbians.
Tonally, “Happiest Season” is a bit uneven; it can move from broad hijinks to high emotion a little too quickly. But it also delivers wonderfully heartfelt moments, notably Levy’s speech about empathy and coming out. Director Clea DuVall (“The Intervention”), who’s out herself, deftly navigates this vaguely non-traditional plot right into the seasonal comfort zone.
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