It’s Christmas! On Hulu, at least. The romantic holiday comedy Happiest Season — which premieres on the streamer this week — stars Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis as Abby and Harper, respectively, a loving queer couple who’ve reached the “meet the parents” checkpoint in their relationship. This is a slightly dicier prospect for queer couples than for their straight peers, in that it comes with certain preliminary hurdles — not only “Hey mom and dad, I’m bringing someone home,” but also, “Hey mom and dad: I’m gay.” One ideally avoids dropping both of these bombs at once. One also, ideally, has these conversations before bringing their partner home into the lion’s den — for their partner’s sake, if no one else’s.
Because otherwise, what you have — what happens in Happiest Season — is a swift shove back into the closet. Unfortunately for Abby, Harper has bypassed the ideal and gone straight for the nightmare. Not only have her parents and extended family not been told their daughter is in love with a woman: They’ve been told that this woman is nothing more than a roommate. A roommate sharing Harper’s one-bedroom apartment … and her bed.
“It’s five days,” Abby says when Harper fesses up about being in the closet. “How bad could it be?” Hopefully bad enough to be funny, or at least diverting. Happiest Season is somewhere in the middle: a little funny, a little moving, a little too familiar to be exciting, but also, unmistakably, a movie that’s doing what it set out to do. This is a Saturday cable marathon kind of holiday movie — only gay. It’s a feature that’d fit snugly alongside the likes of Meet the Parents and The Holiday, a quick gay interlude amid the usual reams of hetero family drama. It isn’t as enjoyably bawdy as the Ben Stiller flick, and it lacks the real estate porn hyper-flattering movie star lighting mastered by Nancy Meyers. But it has a similarly stacked deck of actors, and, for all its dutiful adherence to a well-worn formula, a nice bit of spark keeping it afloat.
It helps that there’s a bit of tension in the backstory. Harper hasn’t arbitrarily kept the truth of her life from her parents. Her secret is the result of a father (played by openly gay actor Victor Garber) running for local political office and a mother (Mary Steenburgen) who’s job, according to her, is to maintain a picture-perfect family image, the kind that makes for good Instagram content — the kind a political candidate needs to get elected. Add to this a pair of sisters — Alison Brie as Harper’s older sister, the passive aggressive, uptight ex-lawyer Sloane; Mary Holland as Jane, the younger sister, who’s certifiably nuttier than a Snickers bar — and the comedy more or less writes itself. (Supporting turns from the likes of Dan Levy, Timothy Simmons, and Lauren Lapkus add an extra dash of bubbly humor.)
This comedy didn’t write itself, of course. Actor-turned-director Clea DuVall co-wrote the script with Holland, and what they get right is a canny way of taking the familiar straight rituals of holiday homecoming and adding the hilarity of gay anxiety. There is, yes, a joke about “the closet” set in a literal closet. There are the expected encounters with ex-boyfriends — and girlfriends, prime among them Riley, who, played by tamped-down but still wonderful Aubrey Plaza, knows exactly what Abby is going through, because she’s been there.
There are sparks of truth here, in other words, mixed in with the usual rigors of the formula. And when the movie deviates from that formula slightly, you might actually start to miss the dependable pleasures of the blueprint. The occasionally outrageous scenes that emerge (among them, that closet mishap) aren’t nearly as fun to watch as two kids framing Abby as a shoplifter. And I craved to know more about these “curated gift experiences” Sloane now makes with her husband, Eric (Burl Moseley), a former lawyer like his wife who is, unlike his wife, black. That last bit is a knowing wink on the movie’s part; if this family can make its peace with a mixed-race couple in their midst, surely they can cope with a queer daughter. Can’t they?
It’s a Christmas movie, so none of us needs to pretend any approaching a sour ending is in store. Things work out as they will, and they do so just differently enough from the straighter movies of the genre for this movie to be notable. It’s not a knockout, but the actors frequently are. The rest is an exercise in not overdoing it. It’s here, it’s queer, it’s not much else — and that’s OK.