Proving a standard-Christmas-movie-but-gay can work just fine.
This may be Kristen Stewart‘s best performance to date. Yes, better than the beautiful movie where she talks to ghosts, or the beautiful movie where she wears the beautiful outfits (Personal Shopper?), and even better than The Runaways. She so engaging (and engaged) here that it’s a bit of a revelation – she brings a truth to this character than is matched only by the surprising realness that peppers this otherwise frothy time in both the character and portrayal of John (Dan Levy).
Happiest Season follows the beats of a standard Home for the Holidays / American Christmas movie, where the family reunites for the season, everyone’s secrets come out, light conflict ensues, and everyone learns to accept and love. The big secret – or at least, the one we’re in on from the start – is that daughter Harper (Mackenzie Davis) hasn’t come out to her parents, and so her girlfriend Abby (Kristen Stewart), whom she’s invited home for the holidays, is forced to pretend to be Harper’s “friend”.
It’s almost all predictable, but that’s kind of the point, right?
Happiest Season‘s true subversion is that it is a typical Christmas movie, but with a queer couple – and it shows it can work exactly the same regardless. Its surprise / bonus subversive move, however, is Harper’s first girlfriend, Riley (Aubrey Plaza, with the film’s second most revelatory performance). She’s weary, knowing, nurturing, and ultimately forgiving; she’s an importantly positive queer presence in the film – not as a forgiving angel for Harper, but as an emotionally sophisticated, supportive friend to Abby. While Riley is primarily there to serve a narrative function, she’s also another woman with whom we get to see Abby spend time. In another story, Riley might have presented a romantic complication, an injection of melodrama, or a reason for Abby and Harper to fight so they can ultimately reconcile; instead, Riley acts as a guide for how Abby might choose to navigate the tricky, and at times just plain shitty, treatment they’ve now both received from Harper. (And Happiest Season actually addresses the toxic behaviour in its relationships as part of its story, rather than simply cynically laughing at or even celebrating it as many other bewilderingly popular staples of the genre do).
Happiest Season does importantly banal work. If you like Christmas movies, it’s a fine, mostly harmless, even above-average version of this kind of film, with a stacked cast and even the occasional surprise.