Coming out is never easy.
Immensely freeing and rewarding, yes but not easy, something that becomes even more pronounced a reality at significant times of the year such as Christmas which is already already heavily-laden with expectation and a certain emotional intensity.
There is never more apparent that in the Clea DuVall co-written and directed festive romantic comedy Happiest Season, when devoted couple, Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis) discover that a very special first Christmas with the latter’s closeknit family is going to be immensely more complicated than expected.
Well, for Abby anyway; for Harper, who has yet to come out to her conservative, politically ambitious parents, Ted and Tipper (Victor Garber and Mary Steenburgen respectively), the complications of the seasons are already wellknown, the product of a competitive family in which love and acceptance only seemed to flow you way if you ticked all the right boxes.
One of those boxes for Harper, who is a very successful journalist in Pittsburgh, is being straight and while her parents still think she’s more than capable of ticking it with gusto, even inviting ex-boyfriend Connor (Jake McDorman) to their family celebrations, Harper is all too aware she’ll never satisfy that one key requirement for parental acceptance.
What makes things very tricky in the Happiest Season, which is a brilliantly romantic and laugh-out-loud hilarious film, is that Harper only drops her status as a closeted daughter to Abby on the drive to her parents’ home, throwing Abby at first who then rallies and utters the fateful words – “It’s only five days. What can go wrong?”
Quite a bit as it turns out in a film that is at its best when it lets loose and lets the familial crazy out for a good old-fashioned verbal and slapstick romp.
For a film with a very serious message at its core about being true to yourself and being brave enough to bring that truth to others, even close family and friends (especially close family and friends), Happiest Season is fantastically, gloriously funny.
For a start the supporting characters, who are all given fully-realised form and are far from just being cardboard cutout tropes for the convenient delivery of jokes, are utterly wonderful.
Abby’s best friend, John (Dan Levy) is a gem at as acerbic but caring gay man who is never short of pithy advice delivered without a hint of sugary coating, as is Harper’s sister Jane (Mary Holland) who comes across in the context of her straightlaced, deeply repressed family as artistically kooky and a chronically, garrulous over-sharer who has a way with routers.
They provide both laughs, and later when things take a little more more for the serious, as they indeed must if the story is to have any emotional impact (which it does, in spades), sage advice, bonding in a way that validates both of them in each other’s eyes and that of friends and family.
Playing a more serious role are people like Steenburgen, who is inadvertently funny as the family matriarch desperately intent on getting the perfect family photo and staging her legendary Christmas Eve party (now with added political donors) and Aubrey Plaza who dials down her usual manic schtick to play Harper’s secret ex-high school girlfriend with a perspective on Harper that Abby may or may not need to hear.
Finally, while Harper’s older sister Sloan (Alison Brie) is as stonefaced and obsessed with appearances as they come and along with husband Eric (Burl Moseley) has produced two weirdly serious twin children (who ask Santa for the collected works of Sylvia Plath), she aids much of the humour in Happiest Season being the ultimately straight person (in all the terms of the word) to the frenetically funny madness going on around her.
Happiest Season, which is visually decked out in the all the visual trappings of the season with lights, wreaths and snow just about everywhere – Hollywood Christmases are the most lush events ever and if you’re dream is to inhabit a perfect looking festive season, this film is the place to start- also benefits by knowing when to pull back too.
Even the climactic scene, where the chips fall where they may and truths out (literally) at the worst and best possible time, depending on who you are, manages to be both over the top and not all at once, testament to the great skill of the writing and directing.
This sense of restraint in a film that is itching to burst with stunningly witty oneliners, admirably idiosyncratic characterisation and manic moments, is posisbly one of its greatest strengths, ensuring that the all important message of love, truth and acceptance doesn’t either get lost in a forest of inspired jokes nor be watered down by the hilarious situations in which they are expressed.
But by being balanced by humour that is exuberantly cutting and clever – again Levy and Holland have the most fun here – the messaging doesn’t come across as overly earnest or two and while the ending is as happy and heartwarming as you’d expect, it is not insufferably so and feels earned after the family, and especially Abby and Harper, have gone through the ringer.
Happiest Season deserves to be a Christmas classic; hell, even a rom-com classic.
It is superbly written, acted by a stellar craft who know how to balance comedy and seriousness and invest authenticity in characters who are far than simply joke initiators, and has a warm and beating, tinsel-bedecked heart wrapped inside a cavorting apparatus of hilarity that drives home the message of love being love being love but does it with a wicked grin, a sense of the ridiculousness and a wry eye on the fact that while we all want the best most truthful things from life, we don’t always deliver on that for ourselves or others and that fixing it all, if you can, may just make this a real Christmas to remember … and then some.