A change to today’s anticipated review, but the period between Christmas and New Year is the festive season, and it’s surely the time to rush out a review of Clea DuVall’s seasonal comedy. From Surviving Christmas to Four Christmases to Christmas with the Kranks to The Family Stone, there’s a venerable tradition of holiday comedies features romantic partners braving an eccentric family celebration. This being 2020, the central couple here are lesbians, but that’s not all that’s new at the party; The Happiest Season looks bright and shiny on the outside, but strikes home some serious dramatic points about prejudice. Rather than look back to Christmas movies of the past, this one has the talent and control required for a proper cinema release, and it’s straight-to-streaming fate shouldn’t be taken as a quality indicator; it’s better than all the films listed above.
Kristen Stewart and Blade Runner 2049’s Mackenzie Davis play Abby and Harper, a happy couple who get invited to Harper’s family Christmas. Her father Ted (Victor Garber) is a politician, his wife Tipper (Mary Steenbergen) is something of a control freak, and their grown-up children have their own issues, with Alison Brie from Community playing against type as prim elder sister Sloane and Aubrey Plaza leaning into her dour Parks and Recs persona as Harper’s lurking ex. Sitcom players add genuine comic timing; a shoplifting disaster leads to a choice, chance encounter with store detectives played by Lauren Lapkus (Orange Is The New Black) and Timothy Simons (Veep).
And setting the right tone from the side-lines is Daniel Levy as John, Abby’s GBF, playing exactly as he does in Schitt’s Creek. ‘There’s nothing more erotic than concealing our authentic selves…’ he wryly comments as Abby and Harper tie themselves in knots to please. As with The Prom, integration is an issue, but unlike The Prom, the way the idea is explored is sensitive, dark and persuasive. Sure, in a comedy like this characters always end up hitting each other over the head with paintings, but that’s not to say this is a cartoon. DuVall’s film is a long slow burn, and centres specifically on Harper’s unwillingness to tell her parents of her true sexual orientation.
There is a problem here; DuVall does such a great job of showing the venality of the family that their conversion doesn’t entirely convince. When John finally turns up at the party, Abby should just have left Harper to sort herself out; The Happiest Season does a great job of showing how inbuilt and innate prejudice can be. That said, this is a bright, witty, engaging family comedy that should have been a counter-programming hit circa Xmas 2020; like many other Christmas films, it’ll probably take a few years to become a fixture, but The Happiest Season has the quality required to be part of our modern cinematic traditions. And Levy’s self-centred character deserves an encore, his pretence at being straight shows Levy has comic mileage to burn. After accidentally neglecting some tropical fish he’s baby-sitting, he obsequiously whimpers down the phone words to the effect; ‘No, they’re fine, I love these fish….now, where could I get some that look EXACTLY like these?