Happiest Season review: A genuine, funny, and poignant holiday hit

Happiest Season’s perfect formula of witty dialogue, an impressive cast, and earnest core make for an easy-to-love Christmas movie that we can easily see becoming a new holiday classic.

Warning: This review contains spoilers for Hulu’s Happiest Season

We’ll be honest: When we hear the phrase “Christmas movie,” it doesn’t exactly inspire thoughts of high-brow films of substance. Maybe it’s unfair, but Christmas movies tend to have a certain reputation for being fluffy, glitzy productions with lots of attractive white people and not a lot else going on. They’re their own type of movie, and rarely the kind with any real substance to them. That’s why we were so completely blown away by Happiest Season: a movie that, yes, does subscribe to quite a few typical Christmas movie conventions, but is also anchored by a deeply honest and vulnerable story that makes it one of the best holiday films of the decade.

Happiest Season follows Abby (Kristen Stewart), a young lesbian woman who lost her parents as a teenager. Abby doesn’t have any plans to celebrate the holidays, but her Christmas-obsessed girlfriend, Harper (Mackenzie Davis), does. Harper convinces Abby to come home with her for the holidays and finally meet her family, but it isn’t until they’re almost there that Harper drops the bomb: She hasn’t come out to her parents. Not only is Harper not out to her family, but her father is also running for local public office, so in order to avoid any “issues” that could derail his campaign, Harper persuades Abby that they must keep their relationship a secret.

As far as Christmas movie plots go, it’s fairly by the numbers: One half of the couple loves Christmas, the other doesn’t, and they go meet the family during the holidays and chaos ensues. In that respect, Happiest Season very much does feel like your traditional Christmas movie. It’s got the gorgeous upper-middle-class holiday decorations and the comically large extended family, all of whom have their own goofy, caricature-like quirks.

However, as the movie progresses, the predictable trappings fade away, and the real core of the film makes itself known: Happiest Season is an insightful, vulnerable, and deeply personal film about self-love and coming out, wrapped up in Christmas décor.

Let’s give credit where credit is due: Writer and director Clea DuVall’s pacing is impeccable, and much of what works in the film is due to her ability to balance the comedy and drama present in a narrative about having to jump through hoops to hide who you really are.

Though Happiest Season is undoubtedly a lighthearted, feel-good film, it never makes light of its core subject matter, and instead dives headfirst into the nuances that entail coming out, especially to a family that seems like they won’t accept you. The film initially presents Harper as a cheery, if naïve young woman who’s just hoping that Abby will be willing to go along with her charade for a few days. But the more time we spend with her, the more layers begin to unfold, and we get a good look at the moral dilemma the film is presenting us with: Harper isn’t nearly as blameless as she seems.

The film starts out by playing Abby and Harper’s struggles to hide their relationship for comedy, but the further we progress, the more the humor begins to fade away and give way to genuinely compelling tension between the two women. On the one side, there’s Harper, who grew up closeted her whole life, and who has always been “daddy’s little girl,” much to the chagrin of her sister Sloane (Alison Brie). Though Harper initially seems just as reluctant to hide their relationship as Abby is, we begin to see her flirting with her ex-boyfriend Liam (Jake McDorman), and constantly making little choices that put her father’s campaign over Abby’s heart.

Harper is a complex character because you simultaneously know exactly where she’s coming from, but you also can’t stand to watch her put Abby through so much pain. Of course, everyone wants to have their parents’ love and approval, and it’s considerate of Harper not to “ruin” her father’s campaign, but it’s often at the expense of Abby’s feelings — and she seems willing to break her girlfriend’s heart one too many times for our liking.

On the other side of the equation is Abby herself, who is initially skeptical of hiding their relationship at all. Her friend John (played by Daniel Levy, who steals every scene he’s in) tells her that Harper’s willingness to hide who she really is should be a red flag, and while she does seem to agree, she has faith in Harper and pushes those worries aside. John is proven right, though, and as the film plays out, it’s utterly heartbreaking to watch Abby’s feelings get shoved aside time and again in the name of keeping Harper’s secret.

Complicating the situation is Riley (Aubrey Plaza), Harper’s ex-girlfriend whom she dated when she was closeted in high school. Riley immediately figures out Harper and Abby’s relationship, and the more Harper pushes Abby aside, the more frequently Riley is there to pick up the pieces, and the two form a bond. We’re always happy to see Aubrey Plaza wherever she pops up, and although her role isn’t large here, her character is one of the most charming features of the film. (And we have to admit that we were rooting for Riley and Abby to get together more than we were for Harper and Abby.)

Scene after scene of holiday hijinks and bending over backward to hide their relationship finally comes to a head when Sloane outs Harper to their entire family at a Christmas party/campaign event, and things finally reach a boiling point. This also results in the film’s most poignant scene — because instead of coming clean and admitting their relationship to her family in front of everyone, Harper vehemently denies Sloane’s claim.

As a viewer it’s genuinely shocking and heartbreaking to have to see yet another denial when we finally thought thing would get resolved, so major props to Clea DuVall for not taking the easy way out. After her sisters stand with her, though, Harper finally does come out to her parents and win Abby back, and they all live happily ever after.

It’s not the most complex story ever told, but Happiest Season just gets so much right. Admittedly, the humor doesn’t always land (Mary Holland as Harper’s youngest sister Jane was a particular low point), but the rest of the cast — which includes Victor Garber, Mary Steenburgen, and Burl Moseley — are all in top form. The script is also genuinely funny and has some great quippy one-liners – usually delivered by Dan Levy or Aubrey Plaza.

When all is said and done, though, we couldn’t help but be amazed by how far Happiest Season blew our expectations out of the water. Clea DuVall never goes for the low-hanging fruit with her effortless script (in terms of jokes or character development), and as a result, the film stands out among the rest of the standard holiday rom-com fare. Anchored by a strong lead performance from Kristen Stewart, Happiest Season‘s willingness to be vulnerable pays off in a big way.

This the type of Christmas movie we can see ourselves revisiting every year.

What’s your favorite holiday movie? Do you have a favorite coming out film? Sound off in the comments below.