Happiest Season: A new spin on traditional holiday films

Hannah Feltz
5 min readDec 9, 2020
Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis

Films revolving around the Christmas season have become a natural way to ring in the seasonal festivities. These movies traditionally follow the blueprint of romantic comedies and have since formed a new genre all together, Christmas rom-coms. What screams love more than beautiful decorations and lights, heart-filled gift-giving, and tender holiday traditions? While these comedies often feel identical in tone and message, this season, we are given the chance to engage in the same cheesy romantic Christmas content but with a twist: A queer love story. Happiest Season is one of the first big-budget studio films that features a queer couple in the center.

Happiest Season opens with a cozy look into Abby (a fun and comedic turn for Kristen Stewart) and Harper’s (Mackenzie Davis) relationship as they explore the twinkling lights and perfect decorations in their home of Pittsburgh. Abby has naturally turned her back to Christmas traditions after the early death of both her parents. Prompted by the magic of the season (or the influence of alcohol), Harper invites Abby home for Christmas. Abby, who plans to propose on Christmas day, jumps at the chance to finally meet Harper’s family. While on route to their destination, Harper brings up one tiny detail: Her family doesn’t know that she is a lesbian and that she is in a long-term relationship with a woman. She requests that Abby play the part of her straight best friend during their visit and promises to tell her family after the holidays, as her dad is running for town mayor and she does not want to add any extra stress. Despite her initial reluctance and protests from her best friend John (Dan Levy), Abby agrees. Upon arrival, Harper is whisked into the stress of navigating a perfect image in front of her parents, Tipper (Mary Steenburgen) and Ted (Victor Garber), dealing with her sisters Sloane (Alison Brie) and Jane (co-writer Mary Holland), and reconnecting with her past love affairs Liam (Jake McDorman) and Riley (Aubrey Plaza). Amid the craziness, Abby and Harper’s relationship is put through challenges that it just might not overcome.

Christmas rom-coms commonly stick to straight narratives. While Happiest Season delves into the key elements of the genre, it also carves out an original path, thanks to the director and co-writer Clea DuVall. For DuVall, this movie is based in her own personal experiences and her passion for wanting to visually represent the queer experience through a holiday lens.

“I love Christmas movies, but I had never seen my experience represented in a Christmas film. As a filmmaker, I want to make movies that have a greater social impact, where you can go in and be really entertained, but where people who are not represented as much in film can feel seen in a genre where they have felt invisible.”

At the surface, Happiest Season falls into the familiar “coming-out” trope that many queer movies, unknowingly or not, face. For the majority of the film, we watch as Abby and Harper hide their relationship, which in turn, hides their own essence and personalities. It is a shame that we only see their authentic relationship in portions of the movie which leaves audiences confused in many ways. I found myself rooting for Abby and Riley (Plaza’s character) more than I did for Abby and Harper. If given the chance to expand more on the main couple’s love connection, it might have been easier to excuse some of Harper’s controversial actions.

Director and co-writer Clea DuVall with Stewart and Davis

At the same time, it is also easy for us to judge someone’s actions regarding a situation we may or may not have experienced. Harper wasn’t exactly raised in an accepting, nurturing environment. Much of her life has been spent competing with her sisters for her parent’s affection on top of trying to maintain a picture-perfect family image. Throughout the film, we hear Tipper and Ted make contentious comments about sexuality and are transported into a family that is more concerned with how their Christmas card looks than their children’s well-being. While many, like myself, are lucky to come from homes that offer unconditional love and support, we must remember that the opposite can be said for many individuals as well. Queer people are often plagued with the thought that people will only accept them if we conform to their standards for love. Harper’s self-destructive behavior speaks volumes to the problems many queer people face when trying to shape themselves to fit straight expectations. Brought to light in a beautiful speech by John (Levy’s character), he reminds us that “Everybody’s story is different. There’s your version and my version and everything in between.”

We have to believe that people can get better. Although Abby stuck around when most people would have reached their tipping point, people are ever-changing, and Harper slightly redeems herself in the end which makes us hopeful she can continue to grow and give Abby the love she deserves.

While Happiest Season can be seen as progress for queer stories, as it broke premiere records for Hulu, attaining the best viewership for any original film on the service in its opening weekend and attracted more new subscribers than any other previous feature, there is a long way to go. Although it features a lesbian couple at its core, there is still a frustrating white presence to the film that should prompt white individuals to check our own privilege. The hope is that one day, we will have a massive amount of queer content that allows us to judge them without it being an insult to the people that created it. When there are devastatingly few options present, it is easier to remain passive in our critiques and be sustained with the little queer content that we do get.

Aubrey Plaza and Stewart

While the movie does not land perfectly on its feet and has problematic aspects, the visibility it brings to the LGBTQ+ community is revolutionary in itself. It shows us that not all stories follow the same mold and allows for audiences, queer or not, to watch a nontraditional holiday tale unfold.

Happiest Season is now streaming on Hulu.

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Hannah Feltz

There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.