The holiday season in 2020 is going to be far from happy. Because of the pandemic, families are not going to be able to come together for annual traditions, and it’s going to be difficult celebrating the best things in life when there is so much fear and pain in constant circulation. But that’s what’s great about movies, right? This year there are a slew of festive new releases that were made with zero knowledge that COVID-19 was coming, and thus provide us with an escape into alternate universes where Thanksgiving/Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/New Year’s proceed like normal.
Of course, they’re not all winners from a quality standpoint, but Clea DuVall’s romantic comedy Happiest Season most definitely is, and it pushes all of the right buttons at the exact right moment.
The film takes what is a basic and very familiar setup, centering on a protagonist who prepares to meet their significant other’s family for the first time, but with a progressive and emotional bent and an absolutely awesome ensemble cast it becomes something more. It’s successfully both traditional and modern, telling a story with very real characters, but it also never misses a moment to be laugh-out-loud funny.
Based on an original screenplay by Clea DuVall and Mary Holland, Happiest Season opens introducing us to Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis) as a couple deeply in love and preparing to be separated for five days as Harper plans to go to her parents’ house and spend Christmas with her family. Not wanting to say goodbye, Harper asks Abby to go with he in a fit of holiday joy, and while Abby hesitates at first, she ultimately agrees.
Excited about the trip, Abby reveals to her best friend, John (Dan Levy), that she is going to use the occasion to propose – but that plan hits a massive speedbump when the couple gets on the road. As it turns out, Harper’s parents (Mary Steenburgen, Victor Garber) and sisters (Alison Brie, Mary Holland) don’t know that she is gay, and not only are they conservative, but her dad is in the midst of an election to become the mayor.
Abby is forced to quickly adjust to the lie, but that proves harder said than done, as tensions quickly escalate – with zero help provided by the constant presence of Harper’s high school boyfriend (Jake McDorman) and mysterious ex-girlfriend (Aubrey Plaza).
Happiest Season is as funny as it is emotional.
Being a comedy that also delves into emotional conflicts rarely seen portrayed in movies, Happiest Season has quite a lot to juggle, but what makes it so impressive is how adeptly it’s done. There’s always a risk that humor will weaken an important core message either by being a distraction or just undercutting the significance of the subject matter, but Clea DuVall finds an excellent balance that allows them to cohabitate in the film. Part of its success comes from letting funny scenes be funny and dramatic scenes be dramatic, but there are also some wonderful tension-cutting moments and harsh shocks that blend them together effectively.
Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis are particularly fantastic, but really so is everyone in the cast.
In the same way that the plot’s setup is familiar to film fans, it can be recognized that there are some trope-ish characters in the ensemble, with Harper’s sisters being, respectively, a total weirdo and an uptight nightmare – not to mention John continuing the tradition of the “gay best friend.” In lesser hands it could be eye-roll inducing, but the script makes them all fit elegantly into the story being told, and the cast is outstanding. Alison Brie’s Sloan is sharp as a machete and vicious in her efforts to cut Harper down, and Mary Holland’s Jane is hysterical in her desperate attempts to be noticed by absolutely anybody. Dan Levy also winds up being Happiest Season’s secret weapon, proving to be among the world’s worst pet sitters while Abby is away, and both a terrible and awesome sounding board.
The most impressive performance in the film is the one from Kristen Stewart, who continues with each passing year to demonstrate that she is an eclectic performer. Her comedic strength is her awkward energy, and it’s used effectively and wonderfully here as she has to keep lying to Harper’s family – with a dark but super funny running joke being made out of her being Harper’s straight, orphan roommate who has nowhere to go for the holidays.
Mackenzie Davis gets fewer comedic opportunities, largely due to her being the center of the film’s main conflict, but she most definitely makes the most of them – particularly in Harper’s overt sibling rivalry with Sloan, which provides an excellent back and forth. Where Davis’ skills are best applied are in the dramatic department, as her character finds herself stuck in an emotionally terrifying place, and her performance particularly hits hard when the third act climax rolls around.
Streaming services in 2020 are providing a ridiculous amount of festive content for the holidays (and have started doing so quite early), but Happiest Season will almost surely be among the best in the crop – and will hopefully standout despite its overly bland title. It’s funny, heartfelt, and provides the seasonal comfort many of us can use right now.
Eric Eisenberg is the Assistant Managing Editor at CinemaBlend. After graduating Boston University and earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism, he took a part-time job as a staff writer for CinemaBlend, and after six months was offered the opportunity to move to Los Angeles and take on a newly created West Coast Editor position. Over a decade later, he's continuing to advance his interests and expertise. In addition to conducting filmmaker interviews and contributing to the news and feature content of the site, Eric also oversees the Movie Reviews section, writes the the weekend box office report (published Sundays), and is the site's resident Stephen King expert. He has two King-related columns.