For so long, I’ve had to watch Christmas movies filled with straight people and their straight-people problems. A single woman gets a fake boyfriend to appease her family—why are there so many versions of this story? As a Black queer woman and aspiring filmmaker who’s devoured a lot of female-led queer media to find a sense of self and belonging, I’ve always wanted a queer Christmas film to love. Happiest Season inches me a little closer to that reality.
As I watched Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis) walk arm-in-arm, admiring Christmas lights in the movie’s opening moments, I felt joy. As they kissed and called each other baby, then climbed the roof of a nearby house to see the lights from above, I relished their easy intimacy. Here’s a queer couple carving their own space in a genre usually off-limits to them. I didn’t want this scene to end.
Though they’re heading into the holiday season with very different plans—Harper set to visit her WASPy family, while Abby, still dealing with the death of her parents a decade prior, plotting to pet-sit—Harper takes advantage of their date night to invite Abby to spend Christmas with her family. Things couldn’t be better…until Harper confesses, mid-drive, that she hasn’t come out to her family, and she and Abby must pretend to be straight friends for the next five days.
Clea DuVall—Happiest Season director, co-writer, and queer legend of But I’m A Cheerleader fame—shows an intimate knowledge of the strain of having to deceive those closest to you in order to maintain acceptance. Dating someone who’s not comfortable with their sexuality, or being that person yourself, is a situation many queer people can relate to, and this pressure is palpable throughout the film. Whether the characters are baking Christmas cookies, ice skating, or shopping for presents, the tension of years of unsaid issues continues to build. The film plays with the performance, denial, and self-censorship that prevail when someone is closeted, and every emotional high and low feels lived-in.
Kristen Stewart positively shines. After a string of incredible performances in independent films, the actress is self-possessed, charming, and clearly comfortable in a big-budget studio setting. She gives Abby a savvy sincerity and earnestness, from fumbling her lies while meeting Harper’s parents to casting aside her own feelings when her girlfriend abandons her, to tearfully breaking things off as Harper publicly denies their relationship in the third act. Abby also projects a sense of groundedness—someone who’s worked through the trauma around her sexuality and holds spaces for others to do so, but also knows her boundaries.
Abby is a stark contrast to Harper, the biggest flaw in the film. She’s written as a wholly unsympathetic character, so much so that she hinders the plot—her relationship with Abby is too hard to root for. Because the action takes off as soon as the couple arrives at Harper’s parents house, there’s little room to explore their dynamic, and the film turns into an emotional battle while still trying to deliver the fluffy rom-com feels.
Schitt’s Creek’s Daniel Levy steals every scene as the voice of reason, and his presence is one of the film’s biggest strengths. Queer people in most romantic comedies are gay men placed in the best friend role to give the audience a laugh while spicing up an otherwise straight story. (Think Damian in Mean Girls or Christian in Clueless.) Here, Levy’s John is in on the shenanigans with Abby. He also delivers the film’s strongest dramatic moment with a cleansing monologue about the varied realities of coming out. Queer people often form chosen families with close friends to offer support in place of blood relatives, and John does exactly that for Abby—an example of why it matters who is behind the camera telling certain stories. Then there’s Harper’s secret ex Riley (played by Aubrey Plaza), who has a heart-wrenching backstory and great chemistry with Stewart. I could’ve watched them trade dry-witted barbs back and forth all day, and I wanted the movie to end with Abby and Riley getting together.
As the movie closes with Abby and Harper lacing their hands together, the camera lingering on their wedding bands, I wanted to again feel the joy of its opening moments. But I needed more. I needed the film to earn its happy ending and hold Harper accountable, to unpack the trauma of coming out and how queer people harm themselves, each other, and those closest to them under societal pressure. I see myself in Harper, scared to come out. I understand how time is wasted unlearning and struggling with heteronormativity, but that’s not an excuse to inflict emotional pain on others in the process. Being afraid of confronting one’s own personal trauma (especially as a rich, privileged white woman) doesn’t excuse actions that hurt people. I don’t want queer people accepting a partner who gaslights them because they’re scared. I want queer mainstream films that delve into coming out and reckon with all the messiness of the situation. I want films that acknowledge the lived experiences of Black queer people. I want queer mainstream films that go beyond coming out to showcase the complexity of their characters. I want queer mainstream holiday films filled with the adorable moments Happiest Season opened with—the cuddles and calling each other baby.
Though Happiest Season offers a welcome reprieve from some of cinema’s most pernicious cliches about LGBTQ people, it feels like it belongs in conversation with straight, conventional holidays films rather than queer cinema; it centers straight people’s reactions to coming out by using their feelings as the foil to queer people’s self-actualizations. The film is a nice fantasy escape: a cozy and warm home straight out of a catalog, a wealthy mayoral candidate for a father, and a cute town center that belongs inside a snow globe. But for most queer people, this is not reality. It is a fantasy, a fantasy usually reserved for straight couples or, in this limited way, for white queer folks. To see people who represent me kissing in the snow on the big screen, even if what follows isn’t perfect, did make my season happier—I just wish the feeling lasted longer.
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