Next week, my boyfriend and I will be traveling to Atlanta to spend Christmas with his family. If I’m to take Bridget Jones’ Diary’s teachings seriously, the more alcohol, the better. Honestly, I’m most stressed about picking out a gift for each family member, and if that’s my great concern, I think it’ll be fine. Should I struggle to fit into the family dynamics, Indie superstar turned director Clea Duvall has provided a guide for not ruining Christmas traditions when you’re the outsider trying to fit in. In Happiest Season, family hiding secrets from each other learn how to open up and deal with some harsh truths. Has there ever been a better time?
When we meet the beautiful, central couple, Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis), they’re very much in love. Harper is getting ready to leave to spend Christmas with her family without Abby, whose parents both died when she was 19, but decides Abby should join the festivities. However, there is a caveat. Harper has never come out to her conservative family, so Abby must pretend she is Harper’s roommate. While this isn’t every gay’s dream situation, Abby loves Harper, and she reveals to her best friend John (Dan Levy) that she is planning to propose to Harper on Christmas. They are greeted with pleasantries from Harper’s mother, Tipper (Mary Steenburgen), Ted (Victor Garber), Harper’s father, who is running for office, and cheerful sister, Jane (Mary Holland).
Of course, Abby will have to stay in the basement because, as Tipper asks, why should two girls share the same bed? That evening, they go for dinner, and Harper’s ex-boyfriend Connor (Jake Mcdorman) appears after being invited by Tipper, throwing Harper directly into her old world. Abby goes along with it, taking each trip down memory lane for the family in stride, and she easily masks her uncomfortableness. But the more Ted needs Harper by his side to meet potential investors, the further back Abby is pushed outside the family.
Tipper plans a white elephant party in the hopes of securing funding for Ted’s campaign. Sloane (Alison Brie), Harper’s other rigid sister, arrives with her husband Eric (Burl Moseley) and their two kids. Each sister’s roles are clear: Sloane is the hallmark interracial family; Harper is the up-and-coming Journalist, and Jane is, well, everyone likes Jane. But Abby’s place is clear, particularly after a shoplifting incident, that she is Harper’s roommate, and that is all. As Harper spends more time with Connor, Abby connects with Harper’s former high school lover Riley (Aubrey Plaza), who understands what it’s like to be hidden by Harper. As the white elephant party approaches and Harper grows more distant, Abby struggles to believe if she has a place in this family at all.
I loved this film. It’s an easy, digestible romantic comedy that plays into acceptance and family themes without being overbearing. Of course, it’s frustrating watching Harper continuously deny her relationship with Abby, but the story gradually builds, giving us access to how each family member hides their truth. Thankfully, writers Clea Duvall and Mary Holland avoid predictability and manage to build empathy for each character. Harper’s reluctance to open herself up to her family generates momentum throughout the second act to the point that we understand how being at home and revisiting relationships left behind has caused her immense confusion.
While Happiest Season is a coming-out story, Duvall and Holland recognize that it is hard to be in love with someone afraid of showing their true selves. Still, anyone who has to come out has their own unique experience, and as Dan Levy’s John points out, anyone who is coming out does so in their own way. But each family member has something at stake, and none more immediate than Abby and Harper’s relationship. Kristen Stewart plays Abby with a quiet simmer that shows how much she cares for Harper, even at her breaking point. Similarly, Mackenzie Davis, channeling Emily Blunt, is outwardly affectionate with Abby privately but internally closed off around her family. Dan Levy is, of course, the greatest Christmas gift.
The holidays are generally when I would meet my family somewhere around the world (we live on four different continents). Each moment is precious to the point of explosion because there is pressure to make every second matter. I want my family to know every part of my life because I wish we could spend more time together. I’m privileged to have that openness with my family, but it has taken time. For others, exposing their truth is terrifying if it leads to disappointing their family, especially during the holiday season. I had to understand who I was as a gay man before letting my family into that part of my life, and it took a few years after coming out. It’s love for ourselves that prevails, to lead an extraordinary life that brings us happiness and fulfillment, and the hope to have as many close family and friends along for the ride as possible.
Happiest Season recognizes the power of the love that Abby and Harper share. It’s effortlessly entertaining, openly affectionate, and shows how one family can learn to love in ways they haven’t thought possible. In the end, through arguments and laughs, it’s all out of love. For my boyfriend’s family, well, I’m hoping to rock their goddamn socks off.