Let me start off by saying that I am not the biggest fan of holiday movies, mostly because of their formula. (Grinch-y male character hates Christmas before accidentally falling in love with a woman whose sole personality is loving Christmas, and boom, there’s your movie.) However, “Happiest Season” pleasantly surprised me in its thoughtful exploration of multiple themes, the one standing out the most being the misconception of what “perfection” looks like. By the end of the movie, this reviewer had cried a total of four times and immediately watched it again the next day.
Directed by Clea Duvall, this Hulu original film explores the relationship between Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis). While the two are clearly in love, things become complicated when, on the way to Harper’s house, Abby learns that Harper has not yet come out to her conservative family. So the spiral begins!
Simply put, Harper’s family is dysfunctional under the thinnest veil of functionality. Harper’s father (Victor Garber) is running for mayor, while Harper’s mother (Mary Steenburgen) runs the social media campaign. Harper’s older sister Sloane (Alison Brie) is a grade-A control freak who, after quitting her law career to make gift baskets (or, as she calls them, “vehicles”), seems keener to win her Golden Child privileges than anything else. Harper’s younger sister Jane (Mary Holland) is the most normal—she’s eccentric and a bit of a ditz, but she’s the kindest of them all.
And then there’s Harper, who claims that Abby is just a roommate who also happens to be an orphan and therefore needs someplace to be for the holidays. To top off the familial deceit, Harper asks her girlfriend to not disclose that Abby is, in fact, a lesbian—because, of course, having a lesbian roommate as a woman would be much too awkward. Harper’s entire family plays up the orphan part of Abby’s “background,” often using this (along with much else) to portray that they are, in fact, good people who care for the “needy.” The whole family is desperate to give off the impression that they live a perfect cookie-cutter life.
It is because of that obsession with perfection that compels Harper to hide her identity and her relationship from her family—and while there has been enough discourse on Twitter about the toxicity of Harper being so closeted, Harper is a sympathetic character for those who have been in a similar position. When the Golden Child has a secret that simply doesn’t fit with her family’s idea of perfection, that person is forced to split themselves into two people who happen to be fighting for different wants. One of the most heartbreaking scenes that depicts this tension is when Harper, after finding out that Abby’s about to leave early, exclaims, “I am scared that if I tell them who I really am, I’ll lose them! And I know that if I don’t tell them, I will lose you—I don’t want to lose you.”
Of course, Abby herself is struggling with how best to deal with this situation. She’s willing to excuse Harper for so many of her actions. At the same time, she’s also hopeful that she could convince her girlfriend’s family that she is a good person. Abby’s attempts to warm Harper’s family up to her even before revealing that she’s Harper’s girlfriend are overwhelmingly touching—it’s enough to make a grinch like myself soften.
Viewers might be tempted to just shout for Abby to leave Harper—get the heck out of that house like Abby’s friend John (Daniel Levy) says! Abby’s too good for this nonsense! And what about Riley (Aubrey Plaza), who apparently had gone through this same thing in high school? Abby and Riley have wonderful chemistry together. Maybe an alternate version of this movie would have Abby ditch Harper, who must certainly suck if she’s unwilling to be open about her sexuality, regardless of the fact that she loves both Abby and her parents.
But for people who are still in the process of coming out or who grew up in conservative families, Harper is a painfully relatable character. Seeing Harper’s struggle to both hold onto Abby as well as her family, who, for all their flaws, she still genuinely loves, is genuinely painful and perhaps hits a little hard for the cheerful holiday genre that this movie’s supposed to belong to. That said, I personally appreciated the underlying story and, more importantly, the theme that perhaps some things are more important than maintaining a certain image. Love is more important.
Love is more important, the movie says over and over again towards the end. Love is more important when Harper declares that she loves Abby. Love is more important when Harper says that she wants to build a life with Abby—Abby is her family, no one else. Love is more important when Harper’s family all wind up supporting the couple. A cheesy message, perhaps, but that’s holiday movies for you.
And what a darn good holiday movie this was. You can fully expect me to rewatch this and cry another four times for the entirety of this month.