Acut above the typical Christmas flick shoveled out by streaming and cable, “Happiest Season” (Hulu) is a heartfelt and impressive breakthrough from director/co-writer Clea DuVall (an actress in “The Faculty” and many other roles) and co-writer Mary Holland (who also acts here, and who I had previously known as the cat-store lady in the “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” video “Buttload of Cats”). I laughed out loud three times and was never bored as an all-star cast slickly navigates the rom-com and holiday traditions.
The generically titled “Happiest Season” (“Gayest Season” was perhaps too on-the-nose) arrives already outdated in some ways, timeless and universal in others. Ted’s (Victor Garber) mayoral adviser warns him that having a gay daughter could be bad for his campaign, and that doesn’t ring true in a time when the president-elect has a gay son.
Even the wider plot of Mackenzie Davis’ Harper fearing coming out to her parents – and thus having to drag girlfriend Abby (Kristen Stewart, rocking white hair that calls to mind 1980s Aimee Mann) “back in the closet” with her – seems out of date.
“Happiest Season” is a safe movie, but not apologetic. It doesn’t hide the romantic chemistry between Davis and Stewart. But DuVall isn’t making a grand statement; indeed, she shows that you don’t have to be gay to have family issues.
Once Harper and Abby get to Harper’s parents’ house for Christmas, we’re hit with a bevy of flawed straight characters. Rounding out the trio of sisters are Alison Brie as put-together Sloane and scene-stealer Holland as overly-eager-to-please Jane. (The character names in this movie are totally on-point, BTW.)
Smiles grow into laughs as Abby and Harper go through the ringer of awkward situations. One of the first things matriarch Tipper (Mary Steenburgen) learns about Abby is that she’s an “orphan” (her parents died when she was 19, but Tipper doesn’t have an ear for details), so she becomes known as Harper’s orphan roommate. The “extra chair” (Abby’s) at a restaurant is shorter than the rest. We feel left out along with Abby in these universally relatable situations.
DuVall’s and Holland’s screenplay has zing (check out the B-plot of Daniel Levy’s John as a fill-in pet-sitter for Abby), and it’s enhanced by actors who dial into their caricatures. Holland’s Jane, who has been working on a kids’ fantasy novel for a decade but doesn’t know how to relate to her niece and nephew, is quick with chip-in lines. And Steenburgen’s Tipper is just as quick to steer conversation away from her black-sheep daughter. The family is so humorously dysfunctional that Aubrey Plaza’s Riley – a girl from Harper’s past – is a straightwoman (in comedy terms) by comparison.
Through all this, we anticipate the big reveal, and it’s dramatic, funny and physical (appropriate for Brie’s background on “GLOW”). While it’s true that anyone could map out the broad strokes beforehand – this is a rom-com after all – the strong cast and funny screenplay make “Happiest Season” into a gay old time.