Happiest Season’s greatest love is chosen family

Happiest Season brings unexpected queer love to the screen: the love of queer family.

Since the news broke earlier this fall that Hulu was planning to release a star-studded, big budget Christmas movie featuring Mackenzie Davis (swoon) and Kristen Stewart (major swoon), and directed by Clea Duvall (the swooniest of swoons), queer ladies all over this country have been buying subscriptions to Hulu and counting down the days until said movie, Happiest Season, came out. 

There has only been one other mainstream holiday movie focusing on a sapphic storyline, Carol, which had us all suddenly considering flirting via strategically placed gloves. But watching forbidden queer love play out in the 1950s is one thing; we were stoked to get something a little more modern and relatable. There have also been a few other indie WLW holiday movies—last year, Tello released Season of Love, which was basically a kind of very sapphic Love, Actually, featuring not one but three queer lady love stories. And just this year, only a few weeks ago, Netflix released A New York Christmas Wedding, whose main conceit feels very A Christmas Carol—a gay guardian angel shows the bisexual protagonist what her life could have been like had she married her best friend, Gabrielle, instead of her fiancee, David. But because they’re not mainstream movies with big budgets, they both suffer the age old curse of most indie WLW films: they both come off a little cheesier than we’d hope. So sweet! But cheesy.

Spoiler warning: This article contains spoilers from here on! So if you haven’t watched Happiest Season yet (or you haven’t been on Twitter in the last week), check out the film and then come back to read this!

So the idea that a major production company was spending real money on a movie written by queer women, directed by queer women, and starring queer women was a dream. In the first few minutes of Happiest Season, Mackenzie Davis (Harper) and Kristen Stewart (Abby) are on a festive tour of Christmas lights. Abby’s not super into the whole Christmas thing, but you can tell the two are madly in love. They sneak off to a stranger’s roof and kiss sweetly, and when they’re caught, they end up making out in an alleyway and being generally adorable. Harper invites Abby to her parents’ house for the holidays, and though she’s initially reluctant, Abby agrees. 

happiest season
Image courtesy: Hulu (screenshot)

A perfect beginning. So nice. This is what we came for! But then the premise of the movie is established—Oh gosh, Harper is not out to her family yet! Yikes! Imagine the hijinks that will ensue!—and the fuzzy feelings from the beginning of the film quickly fade. 

The issue is not that these two characters run into a problem, it’s that Harper decides to bulldoze through it without ever giving Abby the chance to refuse, really consulting Abby about how she feels throughout the trip, or even being on Abby’s side at all. From this perspective, Harper basically drags Abby to a town where she knows literally no one, ditches her there, and then acts like Abby shouldn’t be upset. Harper’s continual apologies for this behavior feel empty—though she’s saying sorry, we don’t get to see Harper’s interiority as much as we see her actions, which just progressively further distance the couple. In an interview with Variety, Kristen Stewart attributes her ability to act through these issues to her chemistry with Mackenzie Davis, saying, “I couldn’t really imagine somebody that I wouldn’t halfway through the movie be like, ‘All right, I’m fucking out of here!’ She has this open, extremely kind, aware, delightful nature. I can’t get mad at that person! Like, I really, really like her.”

That’s good, because honestly, halfway through the movie, Harper’s dismissive behavior was seriously starting to wear on me. The night out on the town, I think—when Harper chooses to hang with her super clingy ex and out-of-it friends at some divey sports bar called “Fratty’s”, rather than spend quality time with Abby after everything—was the breaking point on their romantic storyline for me—and I think that’s by design. 

It is in queer community that the real love story of this movie exists.

I say this because that scene was also the point where I started really liking the movie for totally unexpected reasons. The main breath of fresh air in this film—and at times the only reason I felt like I could breathe while watching such a claustrophobic, heteronormative family dynamic—is the queer community that shows up to uplift Abby during this hard time. Riley, Harper’s ex, played by Aubrey Plaza, quickly takes Abby under her wing, despite not really knowing her. When Abby is shunted off for the family dinner, Riley runs into Abby in town and they commiserate over a couple of beers at the local gay bar, where it is immediately relieving to step into a welcome cameo by Jinx Monsoon and Ben de la Creme, who are singing lewd Christmas songs in delightfully garish holiday drag. When Abby reaches a breaking point, her good friend John, played by Dan Levy, drops everything and rushes to her aid, ready to drive her back to the city.

happiest season chosen family
Image courtesy: Huly (screenshot)

It’s in this queer community that the real love story of this movie exists. It feels very real to see that, no matter the situation, queer people—even when they are near-strangers—step up for one another and have each other’s backs. I’m not saying it’s not satisfying to see Abby and Harper work it out in the end, and to see their relationship progress in the super-cute series of Instagram posts that roll next to the credits. It’s just that having to see Mackenzie Davis be so  brutal to Kristen Stewart for a whole hour of the movie—days, in the film’s narrative timeline—is rough. The difficulty of the whole dynamic is traumatic, in a way we collectively recognize—which the film takes into account by allowing screen time for that heartfelt discussion Abby and John have as they take a walk and decompress outside of the Caldwells’ house, about how coming-out experiences differ wildly. That moment feels like the emotional high point of the film to me: the culmination of the compassion that the queer characters show each other and their willingness to meet each other where they’re at, even when—as in Harper’s case—that might be a particularly frustrating place

Happiest Season is a good movie. It’s funny. It’s full of queer people who support each other. The couple is a cute one. It was beautifully shot, and gorgeously made. It is so much closer to feeling like a representative depiction of modern queer love than Carol is. And most of all, its success is an indication that more queer rom-coms are likely on their way. Despite the film’s issues, Happiest Season is a worthy addition to our ever-growing catalog of queer holiday media, and one that shows our community at its best and most supportive. 

Happiest Season is currently streaming on Hulu.

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