We may still be a few days away from Thanksgiving, but in Hollywood that means one thing: it’s Christmas time! While Netflix has been pumping out festive content since late October, Hulu is just now entering the holiday fray with its latest romantic comedy, “Happiest Season.”
No offense to the ‘Flix, but I can’t say with any confidence that I’ve ever actually watched a single one of their Christmas movies. If we’re being honest, Netflix’s strategy for holiday content is the more the merrier, as they’ve quickly becoming the streaming equivalent of the Lifetime Channel, dumping double-digit quantities of cheesy, feel-good Christmas stories.
Thanks to “Happiest Season,” though, it’s clear Hulu’s approach is anything but more of the same. In writer-director Clea DuVall’s star-studded sophomore feature, the holiday rom-com has never been more unique – from the queer couple at its center to the way DuVall explores both the highs and lows of the most wonderful time of the year.
Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis) are about as cute as it gets, and they complement each other perfectly. Abby’s broody, Harper’s bubbly; Abby hates Christmas, Harper loves it. One night, while feeling particularly in love, Harper invites Abby home with her to meet her family and join in their extensive holiday celebrations. With no family of her own to visit, Abby agrees – plus, since she’s on the cusp of asking Harper to marry her, this will be the perfect opportunity to ask for her father’s blessing.
There’s only one problem: Harper’s family doesn’t know she’s gay – let alone in a committed relationship and on the verge of marriage. Harper springs this news on Abby moments before they arrive at her family’s home, and the entire trip is instantly altered. Suddenly Abby is meant to play the role of Harper’s orphan roommate rather than her lover. All the while, Harper transforms into an entirely different person around her conservative family and high school friends, not to mention her uber-competitive sisters Sloane (Alison Brie) and Jane (Mary Holland).
Now, the question Abby must face is which version of Harper is the real Harper? The more time she spends in her partner’s hometown, the more she learns about Harper’s history, family, and what she could be getting herself into. Through it all, Abby must juggle her own emotional struggles while doing her best not to ruin Christmas.
Everybody loves a good Christmas movie, but there’s no denying that certain tropes go along with nearly every Christmas Movie™, especially romantic ones. Someone meets the family for the first time, things go poorly, the couple fights for a few scenes, then everything ends up happily ever after. That’s the typical formula, and while “Happiest Season” certainly hits some of those marks, DuVall’s decisions to subvert the tropes is what makes this holiday film feel so fresh and powerful.
On the surface, this may look like another cheery rom-com with some lighthearted family hijinks, but it actually deals with extremely heavy topics. Under the guise of a Christmas movie, “Happiest Season” shares an important and profound message surrounding the anxiety that comes with coming out, everyone’s desire to be accepted, and the need to be true to yourself. DuVall dives deeper than most of her peers, unafraid to not only explore those darker moments, but to spend time with them. When Harper is reckoning with her identity or Abby is questioning her entire relationship, “Happiest Season” digs into the emotions and realities that come with these moments, and rather than deliver a quick solution, DuVall stretches them out and lets them simmer. The result is a far greater and more personal understanding of the characters at the film’s core, and a more gratifying pay off by the time the credits roll.
It’s in these moments that Stewart and Davis are able to truly shine, whether they’re handling these obstacles on their own or facing off with each other in an argument.
With all that being said, that’s not to say that “Happiest Season” doesn’t have plenty of warm and fuzzy laugh-out-loud moments, too. Beyond just Stewart and Davis, the film boasts an impressively hilarious cast of supporting characters, led by Dan Levy’s John. Levy, riding high on “Schitt’s Creek” fame, plays Abby’s supportive and hysterical best friend, and he comes in hot and never cools off. When Abby needs to vent, he’s always there with sage advice and a spicy zinger, but he also provides one of the movie’s most heartfelt and powerful monologues in the third act, showing off both his comedic and dramatic abilities.
Mary Holland’s Jane also stands out as the third sister who simply wants to feel included, yet her parents constantly ignore her to dote on her more successful siblings. Holland, who co-wrote the film’s screenplay with DuVall, steals a number of scenes with her extreme weirdness, but her undying desire to be loved will quickly garner sympathy from audiences.
It may not be perfect, but “Happiest Season” provides an entertaining, compelling and, most importantly, refreshing new addition to the holiday season programming. Packed with humor and heart, it’s all but guaranteed to become a modern Christmas classic.
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Raleigh, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.