Kristen Stewart chats with USA TODAY’s Patrick Ryan about “Happiest Season,” the first same-sex Christmas film produced by a major studio.
“Happiest Season” on Hulu had all the ingredients to be a good, groundbreaking Christmas movie: actual gay people behind (director and co-writer Clea Duvall) and in front (Kristen Stewart, Dan Levy, Victor Garber) of the camera; a trailer that promised a story of acceptance; and a primetime holiday season streaming release.
What it turned into, however, was a poor example of what a healthy gay relationship and a healthy coming out story should look like – especially with a glaring lack of such examples in mainstream media.
“Happiest Season” tells the story of Abby (Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis), a lesbian couple in love. Abby is ready to propose to Harper and plans to do so at Harper’s parents’ house over Christmas. The wrinkle: Harper’s family doesn’t know she’s gay. The movie turns into less of a romantic comedy and more of a claustrophobic, “unhappy” season of the horror that is being trapped in the closet.
Abby and Harper stay in separate bedrooms and have to sneak around to get any alone time; Harper denies being gay in front of her whole family; and Abby lies to Harper’s mother (Mary Steenburgen) and says that her gay best friend (Levy) is actually her ex-boyfriend, for starters. Harper generally leaves Abby to spend time with others throughout the film – mirroring her avoidance toward revealing her sexual orientation.
For some LGBTQ+ viewers, watching a movie like this resurfaces the horrors of being closeted – I say this as someone unpacking demons of my own after being closeted for 22 years. I didn’t need to watch a movie like this and relive it. This isn’t a knock on DuVall, as the film is inspired partly by her own coming out experience. But a more nuanced, fleshed-out movie could have gone beyond the trite.
Kristen Stewart (left) and Mackenzie Davis star as a lesbian couple whose relationship is tested by a holiday family get-together in the romantic comedy “Happiest Season.” (Photo: JOJO WHILDEN/HULU)
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Gay people, myself included, likely rolled their eyes at the film’s premise: Another coming out movie? Yes, it’s a big deal that movies like “Happiest Season” and “Love, Simon” exist. Yes, LGBTQ+ people don’t see themselves onscreen nearly as much as straight counterparts. But that doesn’t mean we only deserve “coming out” movies.
There is such a thing as gay joy, and heartbreak unrelated to the feeling of being closeted. Think about films like “Call Me By Your Name” (which, yes, was controversial in its own right) and “Moonlight.” Or “God’s Own Country,” “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” and “BPM (Beats Per Minute).” None of these required a coming out narrative to tell a meaningful LGBTQ+ story (though most are still sad, and shows how far film has to go in telling a wider range of LGBTQ+ cinema).
I would have loved to watch a romance blossom onscreen between two people who accepted themselves and each other. One that could still include romantic comedy hijinks but also tell a deeper, more fully realized LGBTQ+ story.
This film had an opportunity to explore what a healthy gay relationship looks like. The healthiest relationship onscreen was actually between Abby and Riley (Aubrey Plaza), Harper’s secret childhood girlfriend . The pair spend time together in a gay bar – perhaps the safest scene in the movie – and seem most comfortable with themselves. The chemistry between them as friends, and maybe something more, is palpable and refreshing (and I was not alone in rooting for them). When Harper pulls Abby away from time with Riley, it’s clear Harper is the film’s villain.
What’s worse is that Harper never comes out on her own. Her sister Sloane (Alison Brie) outs her at a Christmas party – an awful and unnecessary scene that strips away any type of agency Harper hopes to regain, and leaves Abby never knowing if Harper would have told her family in the first place.
There seems to be a narrative in the film that everyone’s coming out story is different. That maybe it’s OK that Harper was outed this way, because hey, at least she’s out and can be with Abby, finally! Yay!
It’s true that no universal coming out story exists. But doing damage to others in the process of one figuring out who they are is never OK. Abby should be angry with Harper for putting her back in the closet. She should be mad at her for making her feel less than her full, authentic self. She should break up with her – or at least take a long pause – until Harper grapples with her demons.
What’s more, “coming out” doesn’t suddenly go away after some big revelation. The “one year later” montage at the film’s end, with characters smiling and happy together – not unlike the flash-forward audiences faced at the end of “Love, Simon” – misses the point of what coming out actually is. It’s a series of many “coming out” experiences over years, unpacking the trauma of hiding oneself and the work one must do to enjoy healthy relationships with friends, family and significant others.
“To me, ‘happiest season’ is the first chapter of a coming out story,” writer Jill Gutowitz shared on Twitter. “The second would be Harper realizing that what she did to survive the first wave of coming out was bad, and that not only did she hurt herself in trying to assimilate, but she hurt the people around her.” And as The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum points out, “there should be way more lesbian rom-coms, so one doesn’t have to bear the brutal weight of everyone’s holiday wishes.”
The movie in itself isn’t all terrible. “It’s inclusive, surprising, clever and plenty heartfelt, Kristen Stewart’s funny(!), and Daniel Levy’s pop-culture takeover continues to be one of 2020’s most wonderful things,” writes USA TODAY movie critic Brian Truitt. I agree the film has heart, and had good intentions.
But just because something – or someone – has good intentions doesn’t make something a part of appropriate LGBTQ+ film canon. This film’s inclusion on any such list would make many a gay person quite “unhappy.”
Meh: Critics praise new Kristen Stewart rom-com ‘Happiest Season’ as ‘clever’ and ‘heartfelt’
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