Film & Television

‘HAPPIEST SEASON’: CHRISTMAS IN THE CLOSET

Most of us will not look back at 2020 with any emotion resembling fondness. But, as the holidays fast approach, it’s nice to know that there are things we can always count on. Families and friends are still gathering, albeit through Zoom; the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade took place last week, although the 3.5 million spectators who usually line the streets of Manhattan had to enjoy it on television with the rest of the country. And yes, Virginia, there will still be hundreds of sentimental Christmas movies on Lifetime, Up TV, and the Hallmark Channel. In fact, despite the pandemic, Hallmark managed to produce 40 new titles. That’s a lot of holly jolly.

Hallmark Christmas movies have become their own tradition, with more than 40 million unique viewers last year alone. But that doesn’t mean they’re immune from criticism. For many, the cornball factor is just a bit too high; a typical plot might be big-city career gal doesn’t realize how empty her life is until she goes home for the holidays and reunites with her childhood sweetheart, who happens to be the fire chief and runs the local food pantry, which needs her killer corporate PR skills to save it from the wrecking ball. And, naturally, he’s still pine-ing for her. (See what I did there?)

Personal tastes aside (let’s face it, Hallmark & Co. must be doing something right to attract the loyal viewership they do), these movies have also been called out for their lack of diversity. Historically, the titles have been about white heterosexual women finding love in time for Christmas in the arms of white heterosexual men.

But, times have changed since Hallmark Hall of Fame debuted a nativity opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors, back on Christmas Eve, 1951.

This season, both Hallmark and Lifetime are addressing the absence of gay romance with a small number of “woke” titles. Countdown to Christmas features Brandon and Jake, a gay married couple awaiting news about an adoption. The Christmas Setup has Hugo and Patrick making a Christmas connection (thanks to matchmaker mom, Fran Drescher) until Hugo has to decide whether to follow his heart or follow a promotion to London. Subscription service Netflix is offering A New York Christmas Wedding, in which bride-to-be Jennifer is visited by an angel who shows her what life would be like had she acted on the crush she had on her best friend, Gabrielle.

The progressive Christmas movie that’s had the most promotion this year is Clea Duvall’s Happiest Season, written by Duvall and fellow actress Mary Holland. They’ve put together a tremendous cast, including Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis (Tully), SAG-winner Victor Garber, Oscar-winner Mary Steenburgen (Book Club), Alison Brie (Mad Men), Aubrey Plaza, and Emmy-winner Dan Levy. None of these are names that would typically be associated with a made-for-TV movie. But, this is 2020, and with most cinemas closed nationwide, the small screen is better than no screen at all. Unlike many big-ticket titles, Happiest Season can’t really time-shift its opening to spring.

Happiest Season was a passion project for Duvall, who is best known for her recurring role as an actor on Veep. “Growing up as a gay kid, I never saw myself represented in any movies, much less a holiday film,” she recently told ET. “As I transitioned into writing to directing, I thought to myself, ‘Why don’t I just make one of those movies then?'” 

Kristen, who like Duvall is open about her sexual orientation, is equally enthusiastic about the project. “It’s the movie that never really existed that I would’ve loved to have had years ago. The fact that somebody asked me to help make it right now … I was like, ‘Oh man, I’d be so jealous if Clea hadn’t called me and she called someone else.’ I would be just as happy to have it and watch it, but the fact that I got to participate was, you know, all the better.”

Abby (Stewart) and Harper (Davis) have been living together for several months when Harper, excited to go home for the holiday, invites Abby to join her. Abby’s excited to meet Harper’s family and plans to propose on Christmas morning. “She’s my person,” she tells her best friend John (Levy), who immediately upbraids her for bowing to outdated, heteronormative tradition, rather than “sticking it to the patriarchy.” All seems well until Harper pulls over on the road and admits that she lied about coming out to her parents. In truth, they don’t know she’s gay and think she’s bringing Abby home because her (allegedly straight) roommate is an orphan.

Abby isn’t too thrilled to be forced back into the closet, but agrees to go on with the subterfuge because, “It’s only five days.” How bad could it be?

Apparently, very.

Harper’s parents (Garber and Steenburgen) are named Ted and Tipper. If their names don’t clue you in, their traditional and sprawling brick house will; they are affluent and conservative. Ted is running for mayor and Tipper’s fastidious insistence on family perfection (“Smile! It’s for Instagram!”) takes passive aggression to a whole new level. The family is rounded out by the “perfect daughter,” Sloane (Brie) who left her promising law career to make gift baskets (“They’re bespoke gift experiences in hand-crafted vessels”) with her husband and their demonic twins Matilda and Magnus; and their “other daughter” Jane (“Um … the Internet would never work without her”). Of course, because it’s a hometown holiday, we also have plenty of scenes with Harper’s ex-boyfriend and secret ex-girlfriend (Plaza).

In addition to the family drama — and there is plenty — Tipper has to “reimagine” her Christmas Eve party when the guest list expands to include important donors; Abby is falsely accused of theft at a local mall; and Harper gets even colder feet about coming out and reverts to wild nights in the company of her high school friends. The night before Christmas ends up with all of the daughters in a knock-down, drag-out cat-fight that destroys everything from cinnamon brooms to beribboned garlands, a toy Santa, white-elephant gifts, the tree itself, and the family’s reputation.

Levy, who steals every scene he’s in, provides some marvelous humor, very much in keeping with his crowd-pleasing Schitt’s Creek character, David Rose. He’s Abby’s voice of reason, as well as the movie’s voice of sarcasm, and when he comes to rescue her (as her “straight ex-boyfriend”), he enlivens things to say the very least. And, unlike some of the people Abby meets, he has a heart. He explains to her that coming out can be a difficult decision; just because Harper isn’t ready to tell her family doesn’t mean she doesn’t love her. 

There are a few jokes that are repeated too many times (would any civilized adults really keep introducing Abby as “Harper’s orphan?”) and the assumed homophobia of the parents feels forced at first, yet is all but forgotten in one massive conciliatory sweep. I could never quite decide if Jane (co-screenwriter Holland) is simply an oddball or actually has an intellectual disability (which would make several of the laughs at her expense offensive). Either way, the family seems unnecessarily cruel to her. “You slept in the basement?” Abby asks in disbelief. “I had night terrors,” Jane grins. “That way I didn’t wake anyone else up.” Abby is endearing, and under the circumstances, a trouper, while Harper, although clearly conflicted, behaves horribly to “the love of her life.” In fact, when the undercover high school sweetheart Riley befriends Abby, it’s hard not to think that they might be a better fit. Certainly, a more honest one.

I really wanted to like Happiest Season. On the one hand, there should be more inclusive titles in every genre, including holiday. On the other hand, inclusivity alone doesn’t make a film great or even all that good. For a movie billed as an alternative “romantic comedy,” Happiest Season falls short in both departments: romance and comedy. 

But, hopefully, it will pave the way for more (and better) LGBTQ+ stories possible in the future.

Happiest Season is available to stream on Hulu, or to rent or buy on demand.

 

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  • Chris Lombardi January 5, 2021 at 10:44 am

    My bride and I _really_ wanted to like The Prom – with that cast, how not? Instead it missed every mark. And Happiest Season was far worse than even you gently suggest. I may go back to skipping all Christmas movies that don’t have Jimmy Stewart.

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