Happiest Season

I don’t usually review comedies, especially straight forward romance/family ones like HAPPIEST SEASON, nor do I plan to do it often. But I thought this was a pretty good one and I decided to give it a shot. Sharpen my skills.

HAPPIEST SEASON is new on Hulu and takes place at Christmas time, but is not specifically about any holiday celebrations. It has received some attention as a high profile romantic comedy with a same sex couple, and of a much higher quality than the ones starting to pop up on Hallmark and Lifetime. Sony/TriStar had actually intended this for a major theatrical release before the pandemic and its supporters fucked up the country. It was directed and co-written by Clea DuVall, who we of course know as an actress from GHOSTS OF MARS, THE GRUDGE, ZODIAC, etc., so it’s a pretty good in-joke when a character’s teenage bedroom is still decorated with a sexy poster of Josh Hartnett (THE FACULTY).

Abby (Kristen Stewart, PANIC ROOM) is an art history grad student madly, almost annoyingly in love with Harper (Mackenzie Davis, TERMINATOR: DARK FATE). They’ve lived together in Pittsburgh for a year, but she’s been afraid to meet Harper’s family, who have been made out to be very demanding and judgmental. But in a fit of romantic courage she decides to go home with Harper to spend Christmas with her family, win them over, and ask her father for permission to marry her.

One commonality between movies like this and horror movies is that part of their fun is in getting angry at the characters for the poor choices they make. I was certain that Abby should get out of the car, go home and pack her things after Harper pulled over and confessed that she has not in fact come out to her parents and she’ll have to pretend to be just her roommate. But Abby reluctantly goes along with it and tries to make the best of the situation.

So she’s welcomed by Harper’s mom Tipper (Mary Steenburgen, Justified season 5 and 6), dad Ted (Victor Garber, SICARIO) and younger sister Jane (a scene-stealing goof played by co-writer Mary Holland), who are perfectly nice to her, but it’s painful – they’re unaware of how important she is to Harper, and don’t treat her with the appropriate interest or respect. They put her in a separate bedroom downstairs, making note that the door doesn’t have a lock on it. I couldn’t decide whether to worry about what would happen when someone barges in at the wrong time or to just root for it to happen soon and be over with.

Harper has another sister, Sloane (Alison Brie, SCREAM 4), who is repeatedly described as having given up a very promising law career to raise “the twins” and start a gift basket company. Sloane is a total nightmare and she and Harper are openly competitive about everything from career success to ice skating. When Abby tries to joke privately with Harper about how intense her sister is, Harper is in too deep to even know what she’s talking about. Their usual bond as a couple is broken by all this old family shit coming up.

The discomfort increases when they go out to eat and Connor (Jake McDorman, LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD), a somewhat bro-y ex from Harper’s closeted youth, “accidentally” shows up at the same time and joins them. And they also run into Riley (Aubrey Plaza, CHILD’S PLAY remake), another at-first-unexplained person from her past, although you get the idea. As Abby ends up left out of some of the family activities she continues running into Riley, and they end up hanging out together, having actual fun not being themselves.

Abby also has support via telephone from John (Dan Levy, STAGE FRIGHT), her best friend back home who agreed to feed her pets for her. He’s a very entertaining version of the “gay best friend” archetype, but in this case him being gay is an anchor back to real life while she’s being forced to hide her true self in this sham.

I’ve seen people saying that Levy is the best thing about the movie, and I figured it was people who knew him from that Schitt’s Creek show that they also always talk about, and since I haven’t watched it I wouldn’t care as much. No – it translates. He’s very funny in it.

But if one actor is the best thing about the movie, I say it’s Kristen Stewart. I know that she’s now a respected actress who does acclaimed performances with interesting directors, but also she’s a damn movie star. Even aside from the uncomfortable position of having to hide her relationship from the family, and the stress of seeing her would-be-fiancee act so different from the person she loves, she’s also out of place in the same way she would be if she actually was just Harper’s roommate. They’re doing all these events with all these people who have known each other for years, and because Ted is running for mayor there’s emphasis on trying to impress everyone. So Abby keeps being overlooked or left off to the side to have a drink by herself at the party while the important people do the important stuff. She handles all of this much more calmly and with more forgiveness than most of us would, and what I love about it is that it’s not about her being awkward – she is transparently way cooler than every single person ignoring her. Not even one character ever addresses the elephant in the room of wow, your hair is amazing.

That’s actually the main reason I wanted to write a review, just to sing Stewart’s praises and recommend to the Hollywood powers (who I feel confident read all of my reviews at least once) that they just give her a bunch of movies, either underwater fighting giant sea monsters or whatever. But I should note that Davis (who I also enjoyed in THE MARTIAN, BLADE RUNNER 2049 and TULLY) is also great in an arguably more complicated character. She was successful in making me feel angry and wanting our girl to dump her for putting her through this, but then feeling guilty for having judged her when I haven’t had to face something like that myself.

There are and should continue to be mainstream movies about characters who are gay and going through normal shit we all go through no matter our sexual identities. HAPPIEST SEASON has plenty of universal family shit for all kinds of people to relate to, and even the central dilemma of being closeted and fearing coming out to one’s parents might be in some sense relatable to various people who feel misunderstood or afraid to share their real selves or have some secret. But it is specifically a gay issue, and it’s fairly unprecedented for a major studio to be releasing a broadly appealing comedy for the whole family that’s so very much by and about lesbians. Therefore, this release has taken on a feeling of being Very Important.

I bring that up only to assure you that, while I think it’s great that it exists for those reasons, I really just liked it because it made me laugh a whole bunch and felt true to life in many ways, and then optimistic in that normal mainstream entertainment way that can be comforting sometimes. Don’t worry about the overly broad opening scene, and forgive that it devolves into a big silly fight at one point, and I think you will have a good time.

And then tune in tomorrow for a review of something with more punching and killing.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, December 2nd, 2020 at 11:52 am and is filed under Comedy/Laffs, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

16 Responses to “Happiest Season”

  1. When I reviewed the first Twilight movie, my editor thought I had gone bonkers when I called Kristen Stewart one of the best actors of her generation. I enjoyed Happiest Season, I thought Stewart was the best part of it, and I’m glad you did too, Vern. (And I’m very much enjoying your new novel!)

  2. Wow, good call. I only watched the Twilights years later, but I don’t think I would’ve guessed it at that time.

    And thanks for reading Worm on a Hook! Your review of Seagalogy in The Stranger is some of the only local coverage I’ve ever gotten for anything, so I really appreciated it. And unless I’m imagining it I think I sent it to Elliott Bay Books because I was upset that they were filing the book in the humor section instead of film.

  3. I liked KStew in CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA. I tried watching PERSONAL SHOPPER, but can’t even remember if I finished it. I liked her in PANIC ROOM too, figuring that her game was just elevated by Fincher and everyone else. As for Davis, I went through HALT AND CATCH FIRE in about a week and she’s head and shoulders above everyone else on that show, not an easy feat but she did it for me at least. I also liked her in the latest TERMINATOR, despite almost everything else not clicking.

  4. Davis was the best part in the last TERMINATOR. She was the worst part of this one. Even if I was just her friend/roommate and she invited me to her family home for the holidays and then she ditched me to hang out with her ex and let her family treat me pretty shoddily I’d be pissed. That’s one of the big problems in certain romantic comedies – they have to create tension and problems to overcome so they do it by making one of the people an asshole and then you wonder why the other one would ever be with them. She totally came off as a bad person in general. Vern, you’re a lot more generous in giving her the benefit of the doubt because you haven’t been in her shoes. I get that. I still think KStew should’ve run off with Aubrey Plaza as fast as her feet could carry her.

    The sister Jane was my favorite part and the crazy competitiveness with Harper and the older sister was funny. Overall, not a bad movie, but it could’ve been better.

  5. I wanted to like this as much as Vern did but sadly, my experience was closer to MaggieMayPie’s. To me this felt light on both rom and com. Definitely got the same horror movie vibe as everyone else, just constantly wanted to yell at Stewart to “Get out of there!”

    In a way I was disappointed that the movie didn’t lean harder into its story… [SPOILER] at the family party when Davis is yelling denials about her identity and her relationship with Stewart, everyone else in the background just kind of stands there quietly watching her, not really reacting… We’ve seen all these people so focused on Davis and her family for the whole movie, do they really not have any reaction? “That’s your girlfriend?? What the hell were you doing going out for shots with your ex from high school??”

    Agree that Stewart was great, as were Aubrey Plaza and Dan Levy. BTW “Schitt’s Creek” really is as good as the internet claims, maybe not so much in Season One but definitely from Season Two through the end.

  6. This is kind of wild, because a buncha famous actor people were staying at the hotel I work at when 3/15 hit (the coronavirus 9/11). I knew some movie must have been filming, and based on the famous actor people involved I can deduce it was this one.

    I say it’s ‘wild’ because it seemed like the plug was suddenly and completely pulled (famous actor people that were supposed to be staying for two weeks are actually checking out immediately to get 2AM fight back to LA type shit). So I figured whatever movie it was wouldn’t be coming out for awhile… yet here it is.

    Now, I understand millions of dollars are on the line with these sorts of things. But is the safety of the cast, crew, and public really worth endangering to ensure “Happiest Season” is available for streaming by the holidays?

  7. Maggie – Oh, don’t get me wrong, I wanted her to run off with Aubrey Plaza too. But I thought Levy’s speech about different people having different coming out experiences was very effective in explaining it. For my one family member in that situation there was nothing but support, and no reason to think there wouldn’t be, but I know it was still very, very hard to do. So I felt like it made sense for Abby, who has a deep connection with the regular Harper we only see in the beginning, to understand what she’s going through and forgive her. Also it’s the rare situation where she truly can promise it won’t happen again.

    However, I feel like getting her to climb on a stranger’s roof in the opening scene was fucking crazy and I would stay away from her myself.

    jojo – That really is interesting. I was wondering about when this was filmed. I would’ve assumed it was pre-pandemic – lots of group scenes, didn’t notice anything weird. Maybe it was mostly shot at that point?

  8. Maybe it was mostly shot at that point?

    Not the location stuff (which I’m guessing they finished in LA) as the one actor person I ended up chatting with said she had yet to film anything before having to make an escape.

  9. This was an absolute waste of talent. I love all of these actors but the weak script handicapped nearly everyone. This film should have been a Farley Brothers over- the- top romp OR a straight-faced Hallmark Christmas movie type of thing. Instead it was just kind of, meh. Dan Levy and Mary Holland did their best but that’s like putting 4th quarter Jordan in a local rec league game, you’re ultimately not going to see greatness emerge from anyone else. I don’t know how much covid interfered with their plans but if this represents the filmmakers ultimate vision for the movie. Yikes!

  10. This one really worked for me and I did not expect that at all. Mary Holland steals the show (as she did in something else I saw but I can’t remember what. Right now I can only remember her from a series of commercials) but Dan Levy was a close second. And maybe it’s a result of being isolated for the past 9 months or whatever but the feels hit me hard near the end. Thank you, Vern, for reviewing this. I probably wouldn’t have watched this if you hadn’t and it turns out that I’m glad I did.

  11. Jojo, are you from Pittsburgh? I’m born and raised and it was fun seeing some familiar sights and them name dropping Carnegie Mellon and shit. Also hi everyone, long time lurker, first time caller

  12. Thanks for saying that, Dtroyt. I’m glad you liked it.

    Max talking about Pittsburgh reminds me of a thing I really liked but forgot to address in the review – that the way they talk about Pittsburgh makes it clear that Harper had this closeted life with her family, then when she was old enough moved to Pittsburgh where things are different and she could start a new life being herself. I think this happens to many people from small towns. It’s also one way that it’s opposite of the Hallmark Christmas movies, which often depict “the big city” as the place where you work your job as a big time magazine writer but then when you return to your cozy home town you realize that something was missing the whole time, you’re not really happy with that life and you have to abandon it to run a small book shop or bed and breakfast.

  13. Vern I think you hit the nail on the head with those Hallmark movies. They always bugged me thematically but I couldn’t figure out why

    I relate to Abby too much to not root for her to get the hell out of there. I’m glad this movie exists and I don’t wish ill towards Harper but Abby deserves better after being treated this way

    Speaking of Pittsburgh I was an extra in The Last Witch Hunter so I enjoyed when you brought that film up on that Phantom podcast. We seem to both appreciate that it’s a step up from how Hollywood usually treats witches even if it is a poor man’s Constantine

  14. Watched this one tonight as my wife requested it. We have been working our way through Schitts Creek and she loves Dan Levy. I thought it was an average rom-com where every plotline could be solved in 2 minutes with honest conversation.
    But the movie was absolutely elevated by a great cast. Stewart is fantastic, and part of me wanted her to just end up with Plaza, who steals every scene she is in. Levy seems to be playing the same character from Schitts, but he kills every scene he is in.
    Not some all-time classic here, but this was an enjoyable 100 minutes watching at the wife’s request.

  15. @Max

    I currently live in pgh, but am from NY originally.

  16. This movie has good parts but it feels like it sat on a shelf for ten years. We got gay mayors from Mike Pence’s home state now; somehow I don’t think this trendy little town in the northeast with a charming revival theater and a rockin’ gay bar with a righteous drag act is gonna have that big a problem with a mayoral candidate with a lesbian daughter. I am not saying we conquered homophobia, but the treatment here feels out of date. And because of that, the characters don’t just feel like flawed people with lessons to learn; they feel like deliberately ignorant assholes. People saying “lifestyle choice?” In 2020? And they’re not supposed to be monsters? Really? Stewart and Plaza are playing these believable, relatable human beings with dimension and an inner life and everybody else is acting like they’re in an Ashton Kutcher movie from 2004. Alison Brie’s character was particularly unplayable, and I guess I’m just gonna have to take the internet’s word on it about Mackenzie Davis because I’ve now seen two films with her and she just comes off bland and uncharismatic to me. She sure as hell did not have what it took to pull off her big speech, in any case. I don’t think it’s any wonder many viewers wanted Stewart to end up with Plaza instead.

    The film overall was a watchable piece of mediocrely directed tripe but Stewart’s excellent, entirely all-too-relatable performance deserved a lot better. I feel like I’ve been the involuntarily closeted lesbian girlfriend at every party I’ve been to in the past 15 years. She really nailed it.

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