REVIEW: Happiest Season (2020)

Clea DuVall’s Happiest Season is the best comedy I have watched in some time. It seems to effortlessly do what the best films of its genre do: keep the laughs flowing while backing them up with well-developed characters, an engaging storyline, and a dramatic framework that allows it to have real emotions and consequences. It marks DuVall’s second directorial feature; with any luck there will be a third along soon.

Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis) have been dating for almost a year. Christmas is fast approaching – Abby has not enjoyed the holiday since her parents died, but when Harper spontaneously invites Abby home to meet her parents Abby accepts, and even begins planning a wedding proposal. There is only one complication: not only do Harper’s parents not know she is living with Abby, they are not even aware she is gay.

It genuinely hurt to see the global pandemic take DuVall’s film out of cinema. Backed by Sony, Happiest Season was on its way to a well-deserved theatrical release before – here in Melbourne at least – circumstance pulled it direct to home video and streaming. It is the sort of film that deserved a theatrical release. More than that, it still feels like the sort of film audiences needed to see: a mainstream presentation of a same-sex relationship expressed so comfortably in a romantic comedy format that it breaks out an LGTBIQ+ niche. This is a warm, immediately loveable feature film for pretty much everyone.

The cast is outstanding down to each individual performer. David and Stewart are outstanding, which hardly seems a surprise (and whoever dressed Stewart so stylishly deserves a bonus). They are supported by some of the best actors in Hollywood today, and each gets a role that allows them to develop character and flex their skills. As Harper’s parents, Mary Steenburgen and Victor Garber present readily familiar archetypes with their own little nuances and quirks. Aubrey Plaza delivers what I think may be her most rounded performance I’ve seen as Riley, Harper’s mysterious ex-girlfriend. Dan Levy plays gay best friend John with a pitch-perfect level of panache. Mary Holland is the film’s greatest comedic gift as awkward younger sister Jane.

The film gets outstandingly funny, but then turns on a dime to deliver moments of proper, heartfelt emotion. It shares both the joy of watching eccentric characters interact, as well as well-earned moments of genuine pain and hurt. Beyond managing to craft broadly believable characters and giving them real problems to negotiate, it also obeys the golden rule of romantic comedy: this is time you actually want to spend with these flawed, funny, complicated people.

That said, it is not perfect – how many films are? – and some emotional arcs feel a little too contrived. I am hardly the best critic to make this argument (white, male, straight) but to an extent the shoehorning of Abby and Harper’s relationship crisis into typical straight cinema rom-com conventions makes for an awkward fit. Thankfully the film itself seems aware of this, dropping in a genuinely stunning conversation between Abby and John over their experiences of coming out as gay. Despite the wobbles, it is still broadly very, very good. A great movie that addresses its own problematic elements can still be great.

You can often describe these sorts of strong genre pieces by the films that came before them. You can call Happiest Season the best film of its kind since… and then name whatever movie comes to mind. The thing is, no other movie comes to mind. This seems such a distinct – and distinctly wonderful – feature film. I can imagine watching this one many more times in future, like a new Christmas classic.

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