Everyone this year seems to be determined to make the yuletide gay. Hallmark Channel, Lifetime, Netflix — it’s Mary, Mary, Mary wherever you look.
Hulu’s all in on the gay agenda, too, with Happiest Season, a lesbian romantic comedy originally slated for theatrical release that’s gone to streaming instead because 2020. (That’s such an economic turn of phrase — “because 2020.”)
Despite that, streaming may be just the place for this charming entry in the holiday romcom canon, directed and co-written by actress Clea DuVall (Because I’m a Cheerleader). It’s a little slight for a movie theater (… at least, I think so. I haven’t been to one in nine whole months.), but it fits perfectly on the home screen, where the somewhat cliched plot points feel more like warm holiday chestnuts.
What Happiest Season really has going for it is a refreshing level of emotional honesty, particularly in the central conflict between Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis), a lovely lesbian couple who’ve been shacking up for a year even though, to Abby’s surprise, Harper is still closeted to her well-to-do family back home in … some blindingly white suburb in the northeast.
Yes, it’s 2020 and queer movies are still doing coming-out stories apparently, but there’s just so much inherent drama in what’s so frequently a life-altering step that it makes sense. Abby’s quite comfortable in her skin, but Harper and her older sister Sloane (Alison Brie, icy perfection) have been pushed by their municipal politician dad (Victor Garber) and perfectly polished mom (Mary Steenburgen) to be such ideal children that Harper’s never found the courage to come out to them.
Abby, though, just assumes that Harper’s out, so she plans on popping the question when she goes home with her to meet Harper’s family for the first time. Abby’s secure, but maybe not so observant, and thankfully, she bridles at the suggestion that she re-closet herself.
Predictable complications arise: Harper’s ex-boyfriend (Jake McDornan) is still ingratiated with the family. Her secret ex-girlfriend (Aubrey Plaza, making the most out of a scant role) sparks with Abby. Sloane’s got a secret of her own, and weird middle sister Jane (co-writer Mary Holland, who needs to make a sibling movie with Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson immediately) is off doing her own weird little thing (and it’s quite amusing).
Best of all is Daniel Levy as Abby’s best friend John, fully in Rupert-Everett-in-My-Best-Friend’s-Wedding-mode (conspiratorial phone calls, a surprise entrance — the only thing missing is a Burt Bacharach singalong, and frankly, that’s what’s wrong with 2020 right there in a nutshell).
It’s all fine and good, but there’s always a nagging sense of disbelief — like, being lesbian still requires this much subterfuge? Harper’s hometown has a delightful little gay bar (with a pair of sensational drag queens played by RuPaul’s Drag Race faves Jinkxx Monsoon and BenDeLaCreme), and no one clocks Harper and Abby for looking like chic AF lesbians? (Then again, the straight bar is called “Fratty’s,” and yes, I did snort.)
DuVall and Holland get the big-picture stuff right, though, and the emotional beats generally work well. The zingers zing, too, especially when delivered by Levy (“I’m not shaming you. I just think the choice you’re making is dumb and you should feel bad about it and yourself” only works when a warm smartass like Levy is delivering it.)
So, is Happiest Season perfect? No. Is it something I will absolutely watch every year after weeping to The Family Stone and blissing out with Christmas in Connecticut? You bet your gay ass.
Happiest Season will be released Nov. 25 on Hulu and Nov. 26 on other digital platforms for rental or purchase.