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Happiest Season (Clea DuVall, 2020)

With Happiest Season, director Clea DuVall wants us to consider the historical ramifications of queer cinema and what stories have been neglected due to the ingrained homophobia of the film industry. This is a noble goal in its own right, but I wonder if there is something lost when considering what doesn’t exist on the basis of queer cinema through the viewpoint of a cinema that has been dominated by heterosexuality. The result is a romantic comedy and a Christmas film in one. Happiest Season acknowledges and refashions some of these tropes through a lens of queerness, but I wonder if some of the specificity of queer sexuality has been lost in the process. It is true that queer cinema is burdened with these unfair expectations where, as a community, we ask a little bit more from our creators, but there is a lurking suspicion of assimilation in a movie like this one. Happiest Season is sexless and without nudity, both of which are key tools in differentiating and specifying the nature of queer cinema, but I also question the veracity of my need for movies about us to be a little more special. Is there room for something as formulaic and wholesome as Happiest Season when looking at where queer cinema is, and where it’s headed? The answer to that question is yes and no. Luckily, Happiest Season has a lightning bolt in the casting of Kristen Stewart, whose abilities to portray complicated dual emotions allow this Christmas movie to be a little more than just a Christmas movie.

Abby (Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis) are in a serious relationship and on the cusp of marriage. They say things to one another like “you’re my person” and look at each other with awestruck eyes underneath the romantic framing of snow and Christmas lights. Abby wants to propose and ask Harper’s father (Victor Garber) for his permission to marry his daughter, which is a cute little twist on tradition, but there’s one problem; Harper’s not out yet, and her family assumes her to be straight. While spending the week of Christmas with Harper’s family Abby closets herself and the two hide their relationship. The comedy in this particular situation is broad and simplistic with Stewart managing to get a few laughs here and there with some uncharacteristically big reactions. The drama, on the other hand, is much stronger and Stewart really amplifies the discomfort in closeting aspects of yourself to fit into heterosexual norms. It is here where Happiest Season becomes more than just a romantic comedy and more than a Christmas movie, because this concern is specific, and Stewart is a wonderful catalyst for this very issue.

Abby’s parents have both passed away, but when they were alive they were accepting of her sexuality. The death of her parents allows for Stewart to play with some trickier subtle emotions like the yearning that comes with wanting to use the family of your significant other as a replacement for the one you’ve lost. On a level of metaphor this can be particularly appealing to those queer viewers who have lost touch with their birth families due to homophobia or transphobia, even if Stewart’s character didn’t deal with a situation like that one directly. The effect still renders Stewart’s Abby as someone looking to add onto and be accepted into the family of the person she loves, but then what does it say about Harper that she can’t bring herself to let her family truly see her and Abby for who they really are? It is this element of plot where Happiest Season truly shines. In some respects it’s a shame there has to be so much comedy, because Stewart is more than capable of separating herself emotionally and physically from a family dynamic rooted in heterosexuality that she finds utterly uncomfortable and alienating. DuVall has good instincts at times for framing Abby with distance as well, which gives Stewart’s performance more depth as a result, because the images can then reflect her feelings through the blocking. DuVall doesn’t have a ton of tricks up her sleeves to differentiate Happiest Season from other romantic comedies, but she has a good sense for actors, and understands that if Stewart is the fulcrum in which everything hinges upon then she is in good hands.

It’s a problem that Stewart doesn’t have much chemistry with Mackenzie Davis, but one can probably chalk that up to Harper needing to emotionally distance herself from her girlfriend to keep up the illusion that they’re just friends. Davis isn’t quite up to the task of reckoning of with the full breadth of what that means for her character and falls into some broader, straight-forward acting, when the role called for something a bit more slippery. On the supporting end Aubrey Plaza continues to be a welcome presence to comedies and indie dramas alike. Here she plays Harper’s ex Riley, who functions as a mirror to Stewart’s Abby. Stewart and Plaza have a wonderful rapport with one another and the film loosens itself from the constrictions of closeting characters when the two find their way to the world’s safest gay bar, complete with drag queen Christmas karaoke. Their interactions present a type of movie within a movie that strengthens the closeting effect of the suffocating family dynamics that Abby experiences when she’s around Harper’s family. These two worlds are in communication with one another and give the film even more context on the subject of liberation versus oppression, even if we know that at the end of the day there will be a happy ending.

Even with these positive elements a movie like this one will soften itself by dulling the jagged circumstances of its self-closeting in favour of a happy ending when a break-up would have felt more honest. The greatest drawback of Happiest Season is that Davis and DuVall hardly make the case the relationship is worth the closeting. The resolution feels dishonest to me so I find myself asking another question: do we want something nice or something more cynical about queerness in America in 2020? I don’t have an easy answer for that question, but there is a growing concern within myself that films about LGBTQ people are losing their rougher edges and their stance of opposition to a more typical heterosexual, cisgender way of doing things. Not every movie needs to start a revolution, but I do worry at the growing pattern of defanged, desexed movies that center gay characters. But right now, in 2020, “nice” is probably okay. We deserve the small comfort of something as inessential as a romantic comedy even if the broader spectrum of mainstream depictions of queerness leave me wanting more.

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