Some movies have an all-star cast and an important message and they really make you root for them. Sadly, all of the good cheer in the world cannot make you love a film that does not live up to its potential. That is where I landed with Happiest Season. Santa delivers a very mixed bag with this uneven Christmas movie.
The premise is relatively simple. Abby (Kristen Stewart) decides to meet girlfriend Harper’s (Mackenzie Davis) family over the Christmas holiday. In a nod to tradition, Abby even plans to ask Harper’s dad Ted (Victor Garber) for permission to marry his daughter. Only when they are well on their way out of town does Harper bother to tell Abby that she never came out to her family. Instead, they think Haper’s platonic roommate will be their guest, rather than their daughter’s long-time girlfriend.
From this inauspicious beginning we are introduced to a cavalcade of cartoonish characters from Harper’s hometown. Mother Tipper (Mary Steenburgen) has started an Instagram for her husband’s mayoral campaign and is obsessed with getting just the right photos. She also seems unable to refer to Abby as anything other than an orphan. Harper’s sister Jane (Mary Holland) writes as of yet unpublished fantasy novels, while sister Sloane (Alison Brie) left her successful law career to raise her twins and sell artisanal gift baskets.
A nearly pathological sibling rivalry exists between Harper and Sloane, as evidenced by an over-the-top ice rink race that would be more at home in a Disney Channel Original than in a movie intended for adults. In another moment, a mixup puts Abby in a restaurant chair placing her about a foot below everyone else at the table. The film shifted from almost farcical comedy bits like these to dramatic and emotional scenes in the blink of an eye. The result created an unsteady tone throughout the movie.
The moments where the film goes for the heart and leans into the dramatic and realistic emotions are where it shines. The comedy falls flat more often than it lands. I could not help but think that writer and director Clea Duvall might have made some real magic with Happiest Season if she had just gone for a more traditional romantic drama with this coming out story.
In addition to the solidly good dramatic moments, Happiest Season does have a stellar group of actors to help keep it afloat. Despite some pretty caricaturish roles, everyone in the cast at least brings their a-game. Stewart and Aubrey Plaza (as Harper’s former flame Riley) are standouts. That might be because they were not stuck playing too many of the deeply unfunny comedy bits in the film. Dan Levy brings his best David Rose to the role of John, Abby’s best friend. He has a scene in the third act that is an emotional punch in the gut and one of my favorite moments in the film.
Despite how critical I have been, I find myself wanting to encourage everyone to watch Happiest Season. I was bugging friends who also screened it to talk about it as soon as it ended. I do think there will be plenty of people who love this movie for its charms and who are able to more easily look past its flaws. In the end, for me, Happiest Season serves as an example of a movie that had so much potential, yet it could not fully deliver.
Happiest Season is streaming now on Hulu.
About Happiest Season
Rating: PG-13 (Some Language)
Runtime: 1h 42m
Meeting your girlfriend’s family for the first time can be tough. Planning to propose at her family’s annual Christmas dinner — until you realize that they don’t even know she’s gay — is even harder. When Abby (Kristen Stewart) learns that Harper (Mackenzie Davis) has kept their relationship a secret from her family, she begins to question the girlfriend she thought she knew. Happiest Season is a holiday romantic comedy that hilariously captures the range of emotions tied to wanting your family’s acceptance, being true to yourself, and trying not to ruin Christmas.