A Yuletide treat: Why Happiest Season is the queer Christmas film we’ve been waiting for

As the first mainstream Christmas film with a queer couple at its centre, ‘Happiest Season’ manages to tread a delicate balance between Christmas convention and radical noncomformity, writes Alexandra Pollard

Saturday 28 November 2020 08:00
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<p>It is not insignificant that ‘Happiest Season’ was written and directed by a queer woman, made with a ‘queer female crew’, and counts several queer people among its stars</p>

It is not insignificant that ‘Happiest Season’ was written and directed by a queer woman, made with a ‘queer female crew’, and counts several queer people among its stars

Back in 2003, Richard Curtis decided to cut a lesbian subplot from Love Actually. “I was really sorry to lose this,” he insisted, years later, of the emotionally intimate scene between Anne Reid and Frances de la Tour. Not so sorry that he prioritised it over any of the Christmas romcom’s nine arduous straight romances, though – one of which revolved around a man who sang about having a big knob. If Love Actually had kept those three minutes, I’d have been reminded at least once a year since I was 11 that romantic love between women was a thing that existed, even in the cosy world of Christmas movies. But no, I would have to wait another 17 years for that, and so would the rest of the world.  

All of which is to say that Happiest Season – a glossy, mainstream, big-budget Christmas film with a queer couple at its centre – is long overdue. “It’s a gay Christmas movie,” its star Kristen Stewart told The Guardian. “And I know that’s an annoying thing to label it right off the bat, but for me, that is extremely attractive and sounds like … a huge exhale.”  

Stewart plays Abby, a kind-hearted Christmas-sceptic who apparently makes a living as some sort of pet-sitter (though we don’t see a single animal in the film). Mackenzie Davis is her girlfriend Harper, so determined to win Abby over to the joys of the festive season that she rashly invites her to spend Christmas with her family. There’s just one snag: Harper’s not out to them yet. She’s not planning on telling them until after Christmas, because her conservative father is running for mayor, so Abby must pretend to be her straight housemate. This particular revelation is saved for the car drive there, by which point Abby is effectively trapped into agreeing to the deception. “I love you and I want to give you such a great Christmas,” says Harper. “You’re off to a really great start,” Abby deadpans back.    

What follows treads a delicate balance between comic farce and genuine emotional trauma, between Christmas convention and radical noncomformity. Director Clea DuVall (who co-wrote the script with Mary Holland) was determined that this be a romantic comedy, with all the jingle bells and whistles that straight ones are afforded, but she has personal experience with being closeted and it shows. After wringing all the capers she can out of the set-up – Abby literally hides in a closet at one point and practically winks to the camera – she makes the psychological toll of the situation abundantly clear. There are times when the film even feels in conversation with itself: when Abby tries to look on the bright side, telling her best friend John (Dan Levy) that “it’s kind of fun having a secret”, he shoots back, “Yeah, I mean there’s nothing more erotic than concealing your authentic selves.”  

It is not insignificant that Happiest Season was written and directed by a queer woman, made with a “queer female crew”, and counts several queer people among its stars – Aubrey Plaza, Victor Garber and Kristen Stewart among them. “I so appreciated making this movie with Kristen,” DuVall told The New York Times, “because I felt she could understand it in a way that not a lot of people can.”  

Stewart and Davis as yuletide lovers in ‘Happiest Season’

Despite becoming something of a gay icon when she starred in But I’m a Cheerleader in 1999, DuVall didn’t come out publicly until 2012. Having experienced “every side” of this story – she’s been the one hiding and the one being hidden – she has empathy for her protagonists without letting either of them off too easily. Even Abby, the less problematic of the two by far, has been blinkered by her own blissfully unfraught coming-out. As John points out, it is a whole different ball game for those who worry that their family’s love might be conditional.  

“Homophobia is not gone,” DuVall told the LA Times. “So to anyone who’s saying ‘Aren’t we past coming out?’ No. It is a big deal. There are still people who are in the closet, and they are f***ing terrified… [So] to be able to tell a story about someone coming out that is not a tragedy, that is a comedy, that is warm and bright and hopeful, that has a happy ending, is so important.”

Dan Levy (‘Schitt’s Creek’) also appears as Abby’s friend John

Happiest Season felt especially important precisely because it was a Christmas film. The best of them are embedded in pop culture forever, re-emerging every year as part of our festive tradition. That’s why it always had the potential to be both overhyped and overcriticised. Overhyped because a scrap of mainstream representation feels like a Christmas miracle, and overcriticised because one film cannot possibly represent the myriad stories of LGBTQ+ people. With so much pressure riding on it, it is a wonder that it manages, for the most part, such a lightness of touch.

Happiest Season is not perfect. But in the long, slow struggle to make the yuletide a little bit more gay, it’s a great place to start.

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