The movie begins with Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis), a young couple on the brink of their first holiday season together. While Harper’s all-in for the Christmas spirit, Abby is decidedly grinchier. On an impulse, Harper invites Abby to meet her family and see her tidy little hometown over an extended holiday stay. Abby is reluctant at first, but Harper’s enthusiasm wins her over, and she agrees to the trip.
On the way out of town, Harper drops a bomb on Abby: She’s never come out to her family. This means that not only will they have to stay mum about their sexual orientation for their entire week, but Harper will have to downplay Abby’s importance in her life. Against her better judgment, Abby agrees to the facade and soldiers on.
Their situation quickly goes downhill: Turns out, Harper’s family is a blend of 50s sitcom conservatism and the quirkiness of a John Hughes movie. Her mom (Mary Steenburgen) is pert and accommodating to the point of outright belligerence. Meanwhile, Dad (Victor Garber) is a mayoral candidate with as much starch in his shirts as his personality. Harper’s sisters are a creative eccentric (Mary Holland), and a witheringly competitive craft mom (Alison Brie). All in all…they’re just a bit much.
It’s instantly clear that Harper belongs to an Ordinary People style of family, where image and reputation are everything. This passively hostile environment immediately ramps up Abby’s anxiety and Harper’s insecurity, turning their entire relationship on a dime. Things get even dicier when Harper’s parents try to set her back up with a douchey high school ex (Jake McDorman), and Harper runs into Riley (Aubrey Plaza), her secret high school love.
What flows from all this chaos feels like a blend of sitcom shenanigans and genuinely affecting, well-acted drama. The script (from Clea DuVall, who also directs) occasionally gets a little too cute for its own good. Harper’s family members are so broadly drawn that they often become unlikable. DuVall also saddles Abby with a histrionic BFF (Dan Levy), who exists solely for on-the-fly sitcom relief. Levy isn’t given much to do, so he gets stuck riffing on his Schitt’s Creek character. It’s always a little frustrating to watch someone so talented revving in a lower gear.
The film also gets a little wobbly in its second act, and only manages to pull it together for a semi-serious finale. It’s here that DuVall–herself an out lesbian–makes the most impact. Her script truly explores the difficulty of coming out–of revealing who you truly are–to family who might reject you for it. It feels so real, so earnest, that many of the character conflicts feel that much more earned. DuVall makes it clear why we’ve been rooting for Harper and Abby for the whole movie.
A lot of credit also goes to Stewart and Davis. They have an easy chemistry with each other, and effectively play a couple trying to settle in for the long haul. Neither actress has had a chance to be this funny, and they both shine. Plaza also makes a strong impression, as the sly ex-girlfriend who has to sort out her own complicated feelings. Side note: Does anybody play cold and bitchy better than Alison Brie?
While it does mix in a few new ingredients, Happiest Season is still a Christmas movie. It features hokeyness, contrivances, and a bouncy soundtrack with sleigh bells. This is the kind of thing you’re either down for or not. If 100 minutes of unapologetic sweetness sounds like just your bag, head on over to Hulu and give this a look. Otherwise, let me go ahead and recommend the John Wick trilogy. Keanu smashes up bad guys real good.
102 min. PG-13.