Gosh, what a delightful movie 2020’s Hulu original film Happiest Season is. I was smiling from ear-to-ear most of the film or quite literally busting a gut, as they say. Or, yes I will say it, dang near to tears at the more serious moments. It’s been a while since a rom-com delighted me so, and for that matter, a film under the “holiday” genre umbrella.
The premise is, “A young woman plans to propose to her girlfriend while attending her family’s annual holiday party. At the party, she realizes her girlfriend has not come out to her conservative parents yet.” It got strong review on Rottentomatoes, with a tomatometer of 86 percent and a critical consensus that reads, “A jolly good time with heartfelt performances and more than enough holiday cheer, all you’ll want for Christmas is Happiest Season.”
So, sure, the beats of the film overall aren’t surprising: Harper (played by Mackenzie Davis) is scared to come out to her parents, and that creates friction eventually with Abby (played by Kristen Stewart), and the three sisters, Harper, Sloane (played by Allison Brie), and Jane (played by Mary Holland) are all competing for the affection of their father Ted (played by Victor Garber) and mother Tipper (played by Mary Steenburgen). In the end, Harper is true to herself, the other two sisters are true to their selves (both having animosity and/or secrets of their own), and after a lot of tense moments, Abby and Harper reconcile and fall in love happily ever after.
The overall holiday beat is the usual setup: bringing your significant other to meet the parents during the holidays. We’ve seen that in one way or another with a variety of romance-comedy and/or romance films, mostly notably to me, 2000’s Meet the Parents. And it works because it’s such a funny setup for gags. All the more funny when you add in something as serious as coming out. That seems weird to say, but it’s a nice setup for both hilarity and biting seriousness.
All of that said, even if the beats seem familiar at first, whew, it’s so good. So funny. So sincere. So raw. In particular, the hilarity is carried by Mary Holland as the quirky, goofy oldest sister, and Abby’s friend, John (played by Dan Levy). Levy was absolutely cracking me up. He’s supposed to be watching Abby’s pets, including fish, while she’s away, and there’s a hilarious gag about that. Then, when he comes to the parents’ house to rescue her from the situation, he pretends to be straight to hilarity.
It was also cracking me up how the family thought Abby was an orphan and kept thinking of her as coming from an orphanage. That was hilarious. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the hilarious and unexpected mall cop gag with Ed (played by Timothy Simons from one of my favorite shows, HBO’s Veep), and Crystal (played by Lauren Lapkus) interrogating Abby because they think she stole a bracelet or something. So, so good.
But there’s also the sincere moments, largely carried by Kristen Stewart, with Mackenzie Davis pulling her weight by the end. Because, honestly, through about three-fours of the film, everyone but Abby, Jane, and Riley Johnson (played by Aubrey Plaza), who is Harper’s secret ex-high school lover, are awful human beings. The parents are being selfish and awful. Sloane is a miserable human being, and even her two children are weird little mischief hounds. And Harper, until getting her act together, is a real jerk to Abby. But Abby weathers it for a while until she finally cracks and wants to end their relationship, having enough of someone not willing to be true to herself and true to their relationship. Which then brought about a great moment for Dan Levy to be more serious, and deliver a great monologue about how difficult it can be coming out and how it’s different for everyone.
While the film feels familiar with other coming out stories and holiday stories, I thought the film was elevated by a.) fantastic performances both on the level of being funny, but also sincere; and b.) feeling modern, and because of that, making what’s old fresh again. It’s also worth saying that we should always celebrate good films being made with different representation by big Hollywood studios.
Something as an aside I find remarkable and commendable is that Kristen Stewart and her co-star from the billion dollar Twilight saga, Robert Pattinson, both could have rode that wave of blockbuster stardom until it ran out. But like a few other notable names before them who went a different route, Stewart and Pattinson opted for smaller, independent films, and ended up doing interesting work because of it. To be sure, I’m not saying Happiest Season is an independent film, but I’m remarking upon how much I respect that career path. Both were good in Twilight, but they’ve come along way since those years.
I appreciated Stewart’s acting in this. In my opinion, aside from the comedy of Levy, she really carried the film. You feel the weight of what her character is expected to weather with this awful family and hiding who she really is, and what she has with Harper.
If I had one criticism of the film, it’s that the premise itself and the entire film seems to be building up to a Christmas Day proposal from Abby to Harper, and even though they are reconciled by Christmas morning, we don’t see the proposal. Instead, we time hop to a year later and we see the ring on Harper’s finger. I wish we had gotten the proposal!
Other than that small quibble, if you’re looking for a good, funny, and earnest film to watch as your letting that Thanksgiving meal settle in your belly, fire up Hulu, and give this a whirl. I’d be hard-pressed to recommend this as Christmas movie or a holiday movie, but as a beautiful and funny story? Heck yeah. Give it a shot.
And then let me know what you thought!