Christmas movies — and holiday-centered rom-coms in particular — have become synonymous with the season. It’s a genre that’s an indelible part of the pop culture canon, and one that, until very recently, has been straight as the business end of a candy cane. But all that’s changing — and you can partially thank Clea DuVall. The actor-director’s Happiest Season is the first yuletide rom-com ever released by a major studio to center an LGBTQ love story, following Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis as a lesbian couple who get caught in the machinations of a high-pressure family Christmas. (It begins streaming on Hulu November 25th.)
“I’ve always been a huge fan of Christmas movies and rom-coms,” says DuVall, speaking via phone from Los Angeles. “But never seeing my experience represented always left me feeling like there was something missing, and I always hoped there would be a story that I could really connect with in a real way. And then as I got older and I started transitioning into writing and directing, I realized that I could make the movie that I always wanted to see.”
As an actor, DuVall has been a big- and small-screen mainstay since the mid-Nineties, when she appeared in movies like The Faculty and Girl, Interrupted. She cemented herself as a queer cinematic icon when she starred opposite Natasha Lyonne in Jamie Babbit’s 1999 cult classic But I’m a Cheerleader. Since then, she’s been a regular television presence on shows like Veep, The Handmaid’s Tale, and American Horror Story. DuVall has moved into writing and directing in recent years, starting with 2016’s The Intervention.
Happiest Season centers on Abby (Stewart), a woman who’s on the verge of proposing to her girlfriend, Harper (Davis), when the latter invites her to spend Christmas with her family. It’s a big step: She’ll finally get to meet Harper’s mayoral candidate father (Victor Garber), her perfectionist mother (Mary Steenburgen), and her sisters Jane (Mary Holland, who also co-wrote the movie) and Sloane (Alison Brie). There is, however, a catch: It turns out that Harper has never come out to her relatives. All of which means Abby has to pretend to be tagging along as Harper’s roommate, with all the sleeping in the basement and getting iced out of family photos that the ruse entails. (At one point in the movie, she ends up hiding in a literal closet.)
When she was first conceiving the movie, DuVall used her own experiences as a jumping-off point to explore Abby’s side of the story. “I don’t have a traditional family, so I’ve spent the majority of my Christmases with other people’s families,” she explains. “And what it feels like to always be on the outside of a family is so specific. That’s what I think of a lot when I think about the holidays, and I think it’s a very relatable thing for queer people. At one time or another, we’ve all done it.”
Davis, who has been in love with Happiest Season ever since she first read the script, turned to DuVall for guidance as she was digging into her role. “I felt nervous and a little apprehensive about just how outside I was of this experience, but Clea had so much empathy for Harper’s story that really fed and illuminated my own interpretation of it,” Davis says, speaking from London. “I have a lot of sympathy for [Harper], but there are definitely moments watching the movie where I’m like, ‘You are a monster!’”
“It’s really hard, to meet a character five days before they hit their bottom,” DuVall says of Harper. “But I thought making her journey a part of the story would allow the audience in on more of what was going on with her. It was cathartic for me to give myself a break and give other people in my life a break for maybe not handling the journey of coming out with the grace that we all maybe hoped that we had, but that we eventually did.”
And, like Abby’s story, what Harper goes through has a personal dimension for the director. “I came out to my mom at Christmas,” DuVall remembers. “And I think my subconscious was sort of tapping at the window being like, ‘Hey, remember this thing that happened?’ So it really felt like a very natural thing to incorporate into the story.”
In many ways, Happiest Season is a classic rom-com. There’s pratfalls and misunderstandings; adorable children and catty relations; and an overall sweetness mixed with wry comedy, like spiked eggnog. Abby even has a supportive, truth-telling BFF to vent to, played by yet another modern gay icon — Dan Levy, in his first major role since Schitt’s Creek.
“I came out to my mom at Christmas, and I think my subconscious was sort of tapping at the window being like, ‘Hey, remember this thing that happened?'”—Clea DuVall
But what makes the film revolutionary is precisely how traditional it is, all while putting a queer story front and center. Though films by and about LGBTQ people are coming increasingly to the forefront, they’re often indie releases that aren’t seen by wide audiences — and they’re hardly ever mainstream rom-coms. Seeing these stories in widely available commercial cinema is vitally important both for audiences who rarely get the chance to see themselves represented and for audiences who have never seen a queer relationship depicted at all. (This is a banner year for LGBTQ holiday rom-com representation: Happiest Season is at the head of a pack that also includes Lifetime’s The Christmas Setup, Hallmark’s The Christmas House, Netflix’s A New York Christmas Wedding, and Paramount Network’s Dashing in December.)
For DuVall, who has a long history in queer film and television, this is a trend whose time has long since come. “Studios and streaming services and networks are seeing the value in it more, where it isn’t just this novelty thing where they’re like, ‘Oh, we’re gonna put a gay character on CSI and TV Guide is gonna write an article about it.’ But now real queer stories are being told by queer people, and it’s really exciting to me, the level of support that’s out there.”