Directed by: Clea Duvall
Wirtten by: Clea Duvall and Mary Holland
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Aubrey Plaza, Alison Brie
Happiest Season Film Review
Most Christmas themed rom-coms are either unremarkable or just plain awful, so Happiest Season, the second film from actress turned director Clea Duvall (of The Faculty and But I'm a Cheerleader fame) didn't need to do much to be better than them. But as a film, it not only benefits from a unique LGBT perspective but is fairly successful.
In Pittsburgh and around Christmastime, Harper (Mackenzie Davis) and Abby (Kristen Stewart) are a couple who have been in a relationship for a year. Whilst Harper brings Abby over to meet her family, the one problem is that Harper is not out to her family and not ready to come out for various reasons. So Abby has to navigate pretending to be Harper's friend as well as deal with her ex Riley (Aubrey Plaza) and Harper's dysfunctional family unit consisting of the try-hard sisters Jane (Mary Holland) and Sloane (Alison Brie), social media-obsessed mother Tipper (Mary Steenburgen) and Father Mayor Candidate Ted (Victor Garber).
The main thing that any romance, comedy or drama (or both) needs is a good couple with chemistry. Happiest Season thankfully has this. Harper and Abby are both well written and enjoyable characters. Despite Harper being very selfish and at times pretty unlikeable, she does go through an arc that has a good payoff. Abby is an extremely sympathetic figure. It helps that Mackenzie Davis and Kristen Stewart are both an utterly convincing screen pair, with Stewart especially feeling natural and excelling in the dramatic scenes. Actresses like Alison Brie and Aubrey Plaza also convincingly play against type, with Brie being meaner than usual and Plaza being more realistically reserved.
As for the narrative, the main strength is that despite being moulded from the cloth of rom-com formula, the story is for the most part natural. At least 75% of it is probably stuff that you could see happening in reality with the 25%, being the few comedic setpieces or contrivances, though these do not clash heavily enough to ruin the film.
Though if there is a central flaw with the execution, it’s Clea Duvall’s direction, which does lack energy. Whilst not boring, it does feel like the direction is missing a quick snappy pace that would have helped to keep the laughs coming and keep the energy up. Her direction is at it’s best in the more dramatic portions, which are very well handled. As for another flaw, the writing does maybe go a bit too far with Harper’s central character flaw, to the point to where a bit of backstory that is revealed does paint her in a bad light.
The biggest strength is the well-observed handling of the falseness and try-hard nature of trying to keep a family together and have the image of "perfection". That is present in the premise but also present in several other characters, leading to a couple of surprising reveals that really work. Despite this, there is thankfully enough heart to prevent the tone from being too bitter or the characters too insufferable. The final 30 minutes are by far the best part, concluding the film in a way that makes everything prior worth it and on its own being extremely moving and emotional.
Happiest Season might not be a Christmas classic, but it is a sweet and well-written movie that captures the overall mood of the genre whilst executing it well.