‘Happiest Season’ makes milestones for LGBTQ+ representation but struggles to entertain with emotionally intense coming out storyline

Written By Amanda Andrews, Editor Elect

2.5/5 Globes

Available To Stream With Hulu account


Let me just start by saying this: I wanted to love this movie.

I went into this watching this movie convinced I was going to give it five out of five Globes, call it the crème de la crème of holiday rom-com films for finally featuring a lesbian couple, for including multiple talented, out LGBTQ+ stars and musicians, and for being an LGBTQ+ story actually written and directed by a member of the community. Much of it was even filmed right here in Pittsburgh, just another thing the movie had going for it, in my eyes.

I finished ‘Happiest Season,’ quite honestly, feeling hollow and holding back unshed tears, and not the good kind.

‘Happiest Season,’ written and directed by Clea DuVall, centers around the story of Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis) who have been dating long term. Harper invites her girlfriend to her parents’ house for Christmas. Abby, who intends to propose to Harper, accepts the invitation and thinks this is the perfect time to ask the father (Victor Garber) for permission to marry Harper.

On the ride over to her parents’ house, Harper breaks the news to Abby that she lied about coming out to her family before, and they have no idea that Harper is a lesbian, that she is dating a woman or that Abby is anyone but Harper’s straight, orphaned roommate with nowhere else to go for the holidays. Abby agrees to go back into the closet for her girlfriend for five days, with Harper promising she will come out to her parents and two sisters once the holiday is over. Obviously, none of that goes according to plan.

This film is absolutely not a rom-com in any sense of the word, something that fans and critics agree upon. It’s barely even a Christmas movie, except that it happens during the holiday and is informed by a lesbian feeling she has to conform to her straight family’s standards because it is the holiday season, a phenomenon that is experienced by many people who identify along the LGBTQ+ spectrum. Rather than a fun Christmas flick, this film zeroes in on internalized lesbophobia and shame with few jokes interspersed throughout. The humor is hit or miss as well, with Dan Levy, who plays Abby’s best friend, carrying most of the star power in that department.

Fair warning, major spoilers ahead.

The film did have some genuinely good aspects to it, in its defense. Even with some of its narrative failings, it is easy to get lost in and enjoy the performances of its star-studded cast.

Everyone in the film brings their A-game for this project. Stewart creates an extremely compelling, relatable protagonist in Abby, so much so that you feel the character’s heartbreak when she is at her lowest point. As mentioned before, Dan Levy carries much of the humor as John, Abby’s gay best friend, but he is a nice deviation from the typical Hollywood trope because he is the best friend to another gay person. Mary Holland is delightful as Jane, Harper’s eccentric but very well-meaning sister. Another unexpected star of the film is Aubrey Plaza, who plays the character of Riley. Riley is from Harper’s hometown and is Harper’s ex-girlfriend. Surprisingly, she befriends Abby after Abby is largely ditched by Harper at all social gatherings. The two hit it off and remain close throughout the film, but more on that later.

Obviously, it is great to see Pittsburgh featured so much in such a prominent film, and you may recognize shots of Schenley Park, Lawrenceville and Ross Park Mall. Crews did much of the filming in the Pittsburgh area in January and February, mercifully before the coronavirus pandemic hit in full force in March.

It also is very much a step in the right direction that so many people who identify along the LGBTQ+ spectrum were involved in the project in a variety of ways. As a result, the film feels very authentically true to the LGBTQ+ community and some of their experiences. Kristen Stewart is an out queer actress, and Dan Levy and Victor Garber are both openly gay as well. The director and screenplay author, Clea DuVall, is an out lesbian and is probably best known for the 1999 lesbian rom-com ‘But I’m A Cheerleader,’ which tellingly also had controversial themes about coming out (with the main premise revolving around two teenage girls meeting and falling in love at a conversion therapy camp).

Beyond the mis-marketing of the film in the trailer (which was packed with John’s quips and seemed like a fun lesbian holiday romp), the narrative struggles to move past its deeply raw and traumatic roots. I wish I had been warned ahead of time that ‘Happiest Season’ would feature a gut-wrenching outing scene, effectively robbing Harper of her choice to tell her family. Instead, her sister, Sloane, finds out the secret early and screams that Harper is a lesbian in front of a bunch of people at a house party. While the outing scene is realistic, it is painful to watch in its entirety, and none of the family does much to make up for it in the rushed last few scenes. 

Harper is by no means a toxic villain, but she is a deeply flawed character who is, ultimately, forcing her girlfriend back into the closet and ignoring Abby whenever anyone else is around. Not only that, but the excuse Harper provides to her parents means that everyone is routinely bringing up Abby’s dead parents around her. This is attempted to be played off as a funny running gag but almost always comes off as awkward and hurtful. 

It is later revealed in the film to Abby that in the past, Harper horrifically ended things with her ex-girlfriend Riley by allowing their school to think Riley was a lesbian creep stalking her. Yikes. Of course, ‘Happiest Season’ does highlight how difficult it is for Harper to come out when her family has these perfect expectations for her, and Abby is not communicating how burdened she feels by having to stay a secret. But when Abby says towards the end of the film she needs to be with someone who’s ready to be out and is willing to love her openly, you are 100% behind her at that point. It’s a testament to Mackenzie Davis’ acting abilities that her character remained somewhat sympathetic throughout the film. 

In fact, there were so many obstacles for the main couple to overcome that many viewers left believing that Abby and Riley should have ended up together instead. To their credit, Stewart and Plaza have unbelievable chemistry together. Their first meeting acts as a very nice meet-cute, and Riley is continually supportive of Abby and could have served as the alternative, proudly-out partner Abby said she needed in the third act of the movie. Even Plaza said in an interview that she hopes fans come away from the movie upset that the two characters did not end up together. Though it would have made for not as neat of a conclusion as a Abby and Harper engagement, it may have been more narratively satisfying. 

There’s also issues related to the portrayal of the characters of color in the film, particularly that Sloane’s children, who are of mixed race, are so demonized and are used as political trophy points for their white grandparents.

It is difficult for me to be this critical about this film, when I had intended to be nothing but overjoyed about its release. ‘Happiest Season’ certainly has a place in LGBTQ+ media. It feels wrong in some ways to even criticize it when it has accomplished so many milestones. 

However, it is not a film that younger, queer audiences will likely enjoy with its heavy emphasis on trauma related to the queer experience and a coming out storyline. Younger queer people are looking to see themselves represented in media without the focus being on homophobia and potentially being unloved or rejected for who they are. They want to see themselves in characters who are queer and are happy. And if a movie bills itself as a lesbian holiday rom-com, we want to see happy lesbians celebrating Christmas.