Happiest Season Lives Up to Its Title
The Christmas movie is a tricky genre, at least for this writer. Setting aside the debate about what constitutes a Christmas movie (define it however you would like, no judgement here!), the nature of the holiday often leads to films that are overly treacly — even during the time of year where excessive schmaltz is the most palatable — without sufficient heart to make that treacle seem earned. The best entries tap into the true meaning of the holiday season, no matter one’s beliefs or traditions, and do so in a manner that feels genuine: the importance of connection, whether through family, friends, or romance. Happiest Season, the delightful new feature from Clea DuVall, knows exactly how to measure the proper proportions of humor and sentimentality, resulting in a romantic comedy that delivers on the promise of sweetness without ever becoming cloying.
Much of the success in this regard can be attributed to the script by DuVall and Mary Holland (who also shines in an off-kilter supporting role), which hones in on character without losing sight of comedic hijinks that make the genre so enjoyable. The premise is simple enough, combining fish-out-of-water and we-have-to-keep-a-secret tropes to great effect: Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis) are blissfully in love, and as Christmas rolls around Harper invites Abby to spend the holidays with her and her family — however, it turns out Harper hasn’t yet come out to her parents or sisters, due primarily to the family’s near-singular focus on Harper’s father’s political career.
DuVall and Holland’s writing manages to perform the not-so-easy feat of crafting characters and narrative with such specificity that they ultimately feel universal. Each supporting player is written with depth and care, and each gets to close their own circle even if they have mostly been drawing it in the margins. To be fair, it helps when you wrangle a standout roster of actors, including Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Dan Levy, and the always-game legends Mary Steenburgen and Victor Garber. Working with a cast of this caliber only elevates the talents of Stewart and Davis, who have rapidly risen to become two of the most fascinating actors working today, chameleonic in their ability to shift from genre to genre without losing their magnetism. In an era where it’s reasonable to question whether the Movie Star is a thing of the past, these two are indicative of a future where that type of performer hasn’t passed on but has instead evolved.
As is the case with so many films this year, Happiest Season was initially slated to be released theatrically, and it’s not hard to see why — it’s the kind of smart rom-com that could have been a sleeper hit with families and couples looking to get a jump start on their holiday movie-going. But with the move to a streaming-only release by Hulu, the film can still capitalize on that potential: a broadly appealing, often hilarious, romance with a stellar cast and a warm undercurrent that won’t insult your intelligence. In a holiday season that unfortunately promises to be colder than what many are used to, you could do a whole lot worse.