Bells, lights everywhere, a couple with divided feelings about Christmas, and wacky physical comedy are all things you’d expect in a mindless holiday romantic comedy, a subgenre with such strong formulas that they can almost feel cold despite the warm accoutrements. That Happiest Season ticks off all these boxes in its first five minutes using a lesbian couple is such an aggressive proclamation of what the movie is that it’s almost surely a purposeful move by co-writer/director Clea DuVall, who after decades of navigating the industry as an actor is showing a precise and irreverent understanding of who gets to tell what stories in her burgeoning directorial career.
She is at once an unlikely person and exactly the right person to bring queer characters into such rigidly mainstream cinema spaces (which, up until very recently, was synonymous with straight). She’s played so many queer characters that trying to count them all was a bit on Liz Feldman’s (creator of Dead to Me) Youtube series This Just Out, but she didn’t publicly acknowledge her own sexuality until relatively recently. The reasons an actor wouldn’t be comfortable coming out publicly shouldn’t be a mystery to anyone reading this, but if you want insight in Clea’s specific story, including the deep discomfort caused by a journalist trying to out her during press for But I’m A Cheerleader, then listen to her episode of the podcast Queery.
Her slow, tiered approach to coming out seemingly had as much influence on Happiest Season as the entirety of the holiday romantic comedy subgenre, because it turns out the movie is as much about how protracted coming out can be as it is a frothy seasonal offering. Some might find these two plot elements at odds, bemoaning either the intrusion of pointed, rather serious revelations or its sudden pulling back from these affecting moments for a joke about sloppy pet sitting. As much as it feigns being the kind of low-impact pieces of fluff that populate TV and movie theaters this time of year, DuVall understood that Happiest Season had to be more than that. A star-studded Christmas romance between two thin, white, cis women is still political in this day and age, an important claiming of space that will garner both praise and ridicule simply for the gender of its two leads.
This shrewd understanding of the need for radical representation in completely unradical spaces, along with having the connections to get it done, is DuVall’s greatest strength as a writer and director. Happiest Season and her previous film, The Intervention, are not grand displays of storytelling prowess. They are workmanlike efforts with the occasional rough scene transition and good casting, her strongest contribution being the ability to hit an affable tone that minimizes their revolutionary nature. She’s sliding in the way you broach whether someone is out in a space or not, strap-on jokes, and Kristen Stewart in very gay outfits into otherwise unremarkable romantic comedies, necessary steps for queer cinema to not only break into the mainstream but to stay.
Everyone here seems to understand the strategy. Stewart and Mackenzie Davis as the main couple are a sweet, winning team, but it surprisingly becomes the pairing of Stewart and Aubrey Plaza (who plays an ex) that hits just the right note. Both performers have their tics and are more than willing to go big in roles, which makes the ordinariness they bring to Happiest Season almost shocking. Their trademarks are still there, the dry line deliveries from Plaza is guffaw-inducing as always and Stewart’s breathy bumbling is perfect for her fish out of water character, but they’ve modulated themselves so these traits don’t have the distancing archness they so often do. To the contrary, in moments where their characters step away from the group they come across as the most comfortable with themselves and carry their sexuality with the ho-hum ease this movie is fighting for the world to adopt.
Add in some jangly music and the requisite sublimely weird side character courtesy of co-writer/co-star Mary Holland and you’ve got a fun but very calculated confection. Happiest Season knows the moment it’s in and how much it can push the boundaries, and it doesn’t dare come anywhere close to the edge. The win is simply getting an adequate one out there that everyone, not just queer people, will feel the need to see, and then not be put off seeing more. And in that sense, it plants its flag firmly so others can follow.