Clea DuVall’s Christmas film Happiest Season is one of the most beautiful and tonally complex queer films I’ve seen in a long time – so complex that it forces you to question what a queer film typically entails. It revolves around a lesbian couple, Abby, played by Kristen Stewart, and Harper, played by Mackenzie Davis, who decide to spend the Christmas holidays at Harper’s family’s house. Abby is planning to propose to Harper, and wants to ask her father’s blessing first, but she doesn’t know that Harper isn’t out to her family, discovering belatedly that she has to pretend to be Harper’s roommate to her mother Tipper (Mary Steenburger), father Ted (Victor Garber), and sisters Sloane (Alison Brie) and Jane (Mary Holland). As this task becomes more challenging, Abby relies heavily on her best friend John (Dan Levy) and Harper’s ex-girlfriend Riley (Aubrey Plaza), who she meets shortly after arriving at Harper’s.
While Happiest Season has been billed as a Hallmark film with queer characters, that’s not really an accurate description of its tonal evolution and complexity. Instead, DuVall starts with an abbreviated schmaltzy prelude as a palette cleanser, clearing the film of the fatalistic doom that seems to attach itself to Hollywood queerness as a matter of course. This prelude takes place in Pittsburgh, before Abby heads to Harper’s family house, and could indeed play as a Hallmark movie, or a Christmas telemovie. As with a Hallmark movie, DuVall smooths out conflicts and defuses disagreement, overlaying everything with a mildly agreeable quality that seems to preclude any crisis or trauma. When John points out that marriage is heteronormative, Abby simply agrees, and that’s that – they’re fine with their differences – while it’s hard to imagine Abby or Harper ever fighting about anything. Even if the film maintained this tone for its entire duration, it would still be pretty original, since this normcore aesthetic is still too rare for films about queer people, who have the same right to be basic as everyone else. In that sense, these opening scenes often play as a lesbian answer to Love, Simon, which was remarkable precisely in how unremarkably it presented queerness.
However, this schmaltzy queerness paves the way for a even more original second act, in which queerness is permitted to co-exist with the hokey cosiness of American Christmas cinema. On the one hand, the prospect of Abby being outed unsettles the family drama just enough to unsettle the idea of family itself, precluding the agonised subtexts about the importance of family that have characterised so many holiday films of the last twenty years, from The Family Stone to Love the Coopers. On the other hand, we’re continually experiencing this family through Abby’s eyes as a queer outsider, allowing the film to enjoy them as a curio without having to wring its hands about the durability of family either. In both cases, the very possibility of queerness expands and elasticitises the family drama to the point where it can poke fun at itself without descending into self-pity, making for a playfulness I haven’t seen in many feel-good films since the 90s – or, rather a playfulness that itself constitutes feel-good.
The result is a bit like a Hallmark movie crossed with Meet the Parents, peppered with a healthy dose of Waspy eccentricity, mediated through Abby’s increasingly incredulous vantage point. The women in this family have names like Tipper, Harper, Sloane and Jane, while their activities play as a case study in wacky whiteness – curating gift baskets, writing sci-fi novels, creating Instagram accounts, meeting people on Bumble and smuggling exotic animals. At times it reminded me of Meg Ryan’s family in Sleepless in Seattle, or Geena Davis’ family in The Accidental Tourist, much as the film itself is both quite out of time and very much of its moment in its provocative insistence that the 90s feel-good impulse is alive and well in precisely the queer characters that are so often targeted for “tragic” potential by Hollywood. This comic energy revolves around Stewart, who puts in one of her most personal roles, full of brilliant tics and beats, and reveals herself to be a wonderful physical comedian – most memorably in a scene when she’s forced to sneak around the household like the Pink Panther, before getting trapped in a literal closet in a slapstick set piece that – somehow – really works.
Again, if the film stopped here, it would already be one of the most original holiday films in years, since this feel-good element works beautifully to take the edge off the closeting narrative. That’s not to say it trivialises Abby’s plight, but that it provides that rare thing – a story that deals with serious queer issues with a light touch. I loved the way that DuVall refused to dichotomise queerness and homeliness during these middle scenes, epitomised by the way in which the cosiness of Harper’s household, and the cosiness of her small town, segues seamlessly into the cosiness of the drag bar where Abby bonds over drinks with Riley.
Yet the most original part of Happiest Season comes in the third act, which focuses on the mounting pressure of the closet on Abby and Harper’s relationship. We first glimpse this pressure in the scene immediately after the drag bar, when DuVall shifts to a sports bar that’s bleak in its heteronormative horizons. Here, Abby sees Harper flirting with her old boyfriend – or at least permitting him to flirt with her – precipitating a series of events that nearly destroys their relationship, and culminates with Sloane outing Harper in front of her entire drama. These scenes squarely face the primal trauma of queerness – announcing ourselves to friends and family – along with the prospect of being disavowed or disinherited that always accompanies these announcements. That prospect hangs heavy over the film, since Harper is utterly terrified of losing her parents, while Abby, who is now an orphan, has already lost hers.
What makes Happiest Season so powerful, however, is that the schmaltzy first act and wacky second act clears up emotional space for DuVall to confront this most primal of queer traumas without ever capitulating to the doomy fatalism with which queer people are often depicted by mainstream Hollywood. While pathos abounds, the film is refreshingly free from the “tragic” tropes with which directors tend to dispose of queer characters even now. The gesture of Happiest Season is thus one of remarkable simplicity and profundity – to deal with the full emotional spectrum of queer characters without subsuming them into the fatalistic queerness with which Hollywood tends to sentimentalise actual lived queerness out of existence. There’s something world-building about that willingness to dissociate real pathos from trite “tragedy” – an impulse centred in Dan Levy’s character, who transcends the gay best friend trope precisely because the best friend that he’s centring is herself also queered.
Once again, this would be a remarkably original conclusion if the film ended here, but in one final feat of dexterity DuVall manages to pull all this pathos back into the homeliness of the first two acts without ever trivialising or minimising it. In the closing scenes, Ted refuses to run for local mayor (his ambition for most of the film) since it means asking Harper to go back into the closet. While his campaign manager advises that Harper adopt a “don’t ask don’t tell” approach for the sake of his election, Ted’s decision reveals that this closeting rhetoric is (and always was) inimical to family values, despite how often it was mobilised on behalf of them. Not only does queerness now augment and enrichen the family unit, but it provides Ted’s family with a more profound sense of community and sociability than trading his daughter’s happiness for a mayoral seat ever could have – a community and sociability that is finally figured in terms of film, as the family attend a session of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life.
In this extraordinary final sequence, DuVall signals the extent of her intentions – to create a Christmas film that is as groundbreaking and iconic as Capra’s masterpiece – and the beautiful poise of these closing shots prove that she has succeeded. As the lights go down, the first few black and white images flicker onto Harper and Abby’s faces, fusing the start of Capra’s film with their comfort in watching it. This, DuVall suggests, is true visibility for a queer person – watching a film about family, community and sociability and being able to project yourself into it and feel seen by the film itself. Coming out means the freedom to sit in a cinema audience and openly attach to the screen, much as Happiest Season is itself a modern rewrite of It’s a Wonderful Life, translating Capra’s dystopian second act into a brief vision of what could have been if Harper had remained in the closet. After a schmaltzy prelude, a wacky second act, and a harrowing third act, everything comes together in a sublime moment of Capresque resolution – the perfect conclusion to one of the best Christmas films in years, infinitely rewatchable in exactly the same way as a Capra film, and addressing queer people in the same way Capra addressed all Americans: at their most democratic and sympathetic.