[WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD]
Happiest Season is not a rom-com. It is a horror movie that many of us LGBTQ+ folx have lived. Let me preface by saying I have waited all year for this movie. I love a rom-com, I have different standards for queer content, and I once spent 13 total net hours investigating the love affair between Kristen Stewart and Nikki Reed on the Twilight set. (Watch the behind-the-scenes videos from the cast Vogue shoot and tell me to my face I’m wrong.) I am married to someone who will watch/read any and all queer content. Said wife is also a TV guru to the point that my knowledge has pivoted from, “I don’t own a TV” to “David Boreanaz’s latest CBS show features Megan from Mad Men, who was in that Léa Pool lesbian boarding-school movie with Piber Perabo where one of them turns into a hawk in the end.”
That is to say: I know Mainstream American media. I understand that Clea Duvall’s directorial debut in a major box-office film about two women in love is a big deal. It shouldn’t be, but these are the crumbs we are given. I can just see a cis-het studio exec marking up the script with “looks great, but let’s set this scene IN A LITERAL CLOSET HAHA SEE WHAT I DID THERE?”
I was destined to enjoy this movie as much as I planned to pick it apart. Because that is the privilege of seeing someone whose life resembles yours (however slight) on screen. You get to dissect it. My biggest disappointment is that this is a movie about coming to terms with being gay. It’s not about a gay person who is just a person with a sprinkling of jokes a la “Lesbian wedding? Chicken breasts!” circa Monica from Friends. This is a story where the character arc is centered around being gay. Gayness is the defining characteristic. This is the Nancy Meyer’s movie I needed in 1999, though the kitchen needs a major update before it could be considered caucacity canon.
So let us recap. There’s Harper and Abby, chemistry-less lovebirds living in domestic bliss in Pittsburgh. In this world made of steel/made of stone, they are a “perfect couple,” per friend of the couple, John (Daniel Levy). Until the tall one invites KStew to her family’s Christmas and oops, she forgot to mention that she never came out to her parents and her whole life is a lie.
They almost don’t go to Christmas, but Harper insists she will tell her parents after Christmas, because as I have learned from being an outside Christmas observer (Jewish), Christmas is not a time to be yourself. We are left to watch Abby, the orphan roommate who cannot operate a Roomba, sleep in the servant’s quarters where Harper’s homophobic monster parents store their craft supplies. Dad is a city councilman and there’s a lot riding on his potential road to mayor of a city likely located in Indiana. There’s a Christmas party with potential political donors where Harper ignores Abby and haha, the ex-boyfriend shows up, as does the secret high school girlfriend, Riley (played by Aubrey Plaza, who has never looked better). Tale as old as time!
Let’s take a minute to discuss secret gay high school girlfriends. I never had a secret high school girlfriend, but oh to dream! No, it’s terrible and painful and awful, say my friends, the queer chorus. Tell that to 15-year old me unwrapping a “G Love and Special Sauce” CD from my 6-foot four dreamboat boyfriend and thinking, “If only you were the star of the women’s basketball team.”
Back to Harper, Abby, and that black suit with the lace camisole Abby wears to the Christmas party where she is ignored by her own girlfriend. That suit, juxtaposed with Harper’s ability to not even steal a kiss, is a testament to the depth of her self-hatred. Fortunately, out lesbian Riley is there to make a vague reference to her former secret relationship with Harper. Here is where the sparks fly, which might be the gayest thing about this movie: Your ex-girlfriend and your current girlfriend get along better than the two of you. Riley is a resident at John’s Hopkins, which completely relates to everything else in this paragraph, because we need more gay doctors.
After many cameos, including Ana Gasteyer throwing us her best Jennifer Coolidge, we end up at bar called Fratty’s. This is where Clea Duvall gives us that nod you give to other lesbians when you pass on the street. Fratty’s is A Straight Bar. How I have so badly wanted to be attracted to the guys at Fratty’s. Or wanted to want to be at Fratty’s. We watch Harper ignore Abby yet again. We roll our eyes and say, “leave this closet case!” We ask Siri: Is Clea Duvall an orphan? (She is not.)
The story turns around when the parents find out that Harper is gay, Harper’s sister (Alison Brie) is getting divorced and Harper’s comedic-relief sister (the brilliant Mary Holland) feels invisible. Then Dad gives us the biggest secret of all: He spent all the family money! The moral of the story: I can forgive you for being gay if you can forgive me for making us poor! Flash forward to happy-times epilogue.
Coming out stories are painful. Sometimes hiding ourselves makes us awful. The queer chorus told me that Harper and Abby’s entire relationship isn’t invalidated by one bad weekend and one bad decision. My biggest disappointment is that I didn’t want another movie about coming out. I wanted the first major box-office Christmas movie about a queer couple to be post-queer. It’s a tall order. I enjoyed this movie and I will watch it again. Without pausing it 45 times to talk about past trauma of loving someone who wasn’t ready or telling our families.
The glimmer of hope in Happiest Season is what I imagine is the voice of Clea Duvall vis-a-vis John. He brings up the patriarchy when KStew wants to ask for her would-be father-in-law’s marital blessing. “I’m not shaming you. I just think you should feel bad about your choices and yourself,” he says at to Kristen Stewart when she makes excuses for Harper. (By the way, Alison, if you are reading this, you should absolutely get that haircut.)
There have been multiple think pieces written about the alternate ending in which KStew ends up with Aubrey Plaza, and they live that baller Dr. and Dr. life. I have held off on reading them until I put my own feelings into words.
If Abby and Riley had ended up together, two women who know what they want and don’t hide it, this would have been a different movie. (See aforementioned PhD-MD life.) It’s hard to choke down Kristen Stewart settling for this after she and Robert Pattinson showed us that true love knows no species. I demand justice for Riley. Yet if this movie is relegated to queer canon, the sequel can only end in a girlfriend-swap and a vampire.