Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Rated PG-13, 101 minutes
Directed by: Clea DuVall
HAPPIEST SEASON is like getting a cozy cashmere sweater as a gift but then realizing, after the tags have been cut off, that a few noticeable holes have begun to form. The delightful Christmas-themed comedy, centering on one woman’s winterland weekend plan to propose going awry, stumbles quite a bit after developing a perfect running gait. Nevertheless, the poignancy of its sentiments, the welcoming beauty of its Nancy Meyers-esque aesthetic and its essential need to fill a gaping hole in the marketplace stand to make things merry and bright.
Abby (Kristen Stewart) is completely smitten with her girlfriend Harper (Mackenzie Davis). They live together in a small apartment in Pittsburgh and share an unbreakable bond. “She’s my person,” Abby states (as our hearts melt) to her gay best friend John (Dan Levy). She plans to pop the question, but first wants to ask Harper’s father Ted (Victor Garber) for his daughter’s hand in marriage. She’s bought a gorgeous ring and has it all thought out. However, she did not factor in that Harper isn’t exactly “out” to anyone in her hometown, let alone her very conservative family. This fact is only revealed at the last minute to her by an extremely apologetic Harper, who convinces Abby to go along with the charade that they’re straight best friends – not lovers – so as not to jeopardize her perfect standing with the family, or community.
Director/ co-writer Clea DuVall and co-writer Mary Holland (who pulls double duty in front of the camera starring as Harper’s younger, awkward sister Jane) infuse their film with stereotypical amounts of hijinks and hilarity. It first shows up in Harper’s surprising confessional to Abby that her family doesn’t know she’s a lesbian, and escalates further with her audacious cover-up of Abby’s identity. It snowballs at the restaurant where Harper’s stressed, overbearing mother Tipper (Mary Steenburgen) tries to set Harper up with her high school beard (Jake McDorman). To make matters worse, Harper runs into her childhood ex-best friend Riley (Aubrey Plaza), with whom she has a checkered past romance. There’s also shenanigans with Harper’s stringent, eldest sister Sloane (Alison Brie), stoking a tempestuous sibling rivalry. The home itself is part of the jokes, not only with the long-running gag revolving around the guest room’s lack of privacy, but also a predictable late-night. sneak-around-the-house sequence (which does hold some truly funny zingers).
Stewart and Davis are radiant leading ladies, tethering us to the heart of their characters’ struggles. Stewart handles the pratfalls and poignancy with natural ease. She easily adapts to being “the straight man” during a few farce-driven sequences, yet is equally skilled at driving the comedy with a delightfully foppish manner. Davis gives the push-pull of her character’s tumultuous psychological stakes a sense of gravitas, infusing her performance with vulnerability. Levy rises to the top, frequently delivering the picture’s passionate, sentimental crux with both comedic verve and dramatic tenderness.
Yet for everything that feels like a lived-in, fleshed-out experience, there are other elements that don’t function at their greatest capacity, specifically when it comes to Harper’s inevitable reveal to her family. The scene, set during her parents’ White Elephant gift exchange party, oscillates repeatedly from silly to serious in whiplash fashion. Instead of keeping Harper’s conflict and catharsis solely inner-motivated, the filmmakers try to equate her teenage act of desperation, lying when confronted about her queerness, with another character now enacting a form of karmic retribution against her. Yet one transgression was committed by a scared child, and the other by an adult who should know better. The story’s attempts to walk back the adult’s pettiness also fail to land; this person becomes irredeemable. Plus, we’re deprived of a huge movie moment that the narrative was building towards when the filmmakers confusingly rush through the end of their third act.
All of these mistakes are somewhat excusable, given everyone’s hearts are in the right place and the story feels tangibly personal. There’s not a soul who won’t relate to the universality of the film’s compelling and compassionate message that love, whether it be loving yourself or loving someone else, can lead to truth and honesty. Still, it would’ve behooved the filmmakers to finish with more lasting nourishment.
HAPPIEST SEASON begins streaming on Hulu on November 25.