Deception, or mistaken identity, is a favored plot device of the romantic comedy, and it’s an especially popular one in modern Christmas rom-coms. Bakers pretend to be princesses and princesses pretend to be bakers. Journalists pretend to be tutors and end up princesses. There are enough holiday movies about single people bringing fake fiancés home for Christmas that it’s become a genre unto itself.
Happiest Season, a charming new Christmas rom-com from writer-director Clea DuVall that premieres on Hulu on Nov. 25, situates itself in this tradition. Harper Caldwell (Mackenzie Davis) invites her girlfriend, Abby (Kristen Stewart), to spend Christmas with her wealthy, WASP-y family, and neglects to inform her until they’re minutes away from meeting that no one in Harper’s hometown knows she’s gay. Harper promises she’ll come out after the holiday festivities, but until then, both she and Abby have to play it straight, lest she spoil a high-stakes meeting with a donor her father, a mayoral candidate, must impress.
At first, the film plays the deception for laughs. The clueless Caldwells brim with sympathy for Abby, “Harper’s orphan friend,” one who has nowhere else to spend the holidays because she’s just broken up with (according to the couple’s hastily improvised cover story) her milkman boyfriend. Harper’s mother (the effortlessly overwrought Mary Steenburgen) scoffs at the idea of two adult women having to share a bed in her daughter’s childhood bedroom, so she installs Abby in the basement, tenderly observing that it must be nicer than her old orphanage. When Abby phones a friend, John (Dan Levy, playing a slightly muted version of his character from Schitt’s Creek), to fill him in on the charade, he responds with the sardonic exasperation of every gay rom-com BFF: “There’s nothing more erotic than concealing your authentic selves!”
But it doesn’t take long for Happiest Season to diverge from its peers in this Yuletide subgenre. In this film, the ruse doesn’t just stress out the pretender and erode trust between the fooler and the fooled. It’s a degrading exercise for Abby, too, as she contorts herself to accommodate her girlfriend’s shame. For all the familiar joys and comforts this holiday movie provides—maximally decorated homes, Christmas carols, a slapstick scene at a skating rink—its commentary on the agony of living in the closet, or loving someone who is, stakes out some entirely new territory. Abby, not Harper, is the film’s protagonist, so our chief sympathies lie with the gay person who’s already out, rather than the one who’s still tiptoeing around her family’s perceived prejudice. (One parent grumbles about a gay family friend’s “lifestyle choice,” but the Caldwells seem driven more by a desire to conform than any deep-seated objection to same-sex relationships.) It’s not a simple case of homophobes making it harder for two lesbians to live full and happy lives. It’s Harper’s response to—and mirroring of—that homophobia that’s making Abby miserable.
Here, Happiest Season departs from another well-trodden trope. There have been dozens of films and television episodes about nervous queer people coming out to their families while home for a holiday or milestone event. This is the premise of Master of None’s superb “Thanksgiving” episode, for which Lena Waithe won an Emmy; Jenna Laurenzo’s 2018 indie Lez Bomb; and Alan Ball’s forthcoming feature Uncle Frank, which is set to come out on Amazon Prime the same day this movie comes out on its competitor. Most of these narratives tell of the trials a gay person faces as she decides to share her whole self with her family. Happiest Season explores how alienating it can feel for a person who’s already completed that rite of passage to be thrust back into the suffocating pageantry of heterosexuality, with someone who’s not quite ready to leave.
It’s also wonderfully funny. Mary Holland, who co-wrote the screenplay with fellow Veep alumna DuVall, is responsible for many of the film’s biggest laughs as Harper’s oddball sister, an aspiring fantasy writer scrambling for leftover scraps of her parents’ affection. Stewart is better known for her sultry sulking face than for her physical comedy chops, but she gets a chance to exercise both—and she makes an excellent straight woman, so to speak, for Levy, whose cautioning character functions a bit like Lil Rel Howery’s in Get Out. Days after watching the movie, I’m still delighted by a silly subplot about a tankful of fish that Abby, a pet-sitter, leaves under John’s care while she’s gone. All the gags are earnest and PG-rated, with the cast’s winning personalities keeping them just shy of corny.
But the charismatic cast can’t fully mitigate the film’s biggest shortcoming: The central relationship doesn’t seem all that great. Aside from an illustrated opening-credits slideshow of moments from Abby and Harper’s history—a romantic picnic, pumpkin carving, moving in together—we barely see them interacting outside the confines of the closet. For Abby to plan a Christmas engagement and put up with five days of humiliating family drama, she must have been motivated by a tremendous love, and Harper must have a whole list of redeeming qualities that fade away as she retreats into a safer, more juvenile version of herself when she visits her hometown. Those are left to the viewer’s imagination, making it difficult to understand why Abby sticks around.
That task is made harder by the sharp distinction Happiest Season draws between the queer world, where Abby feels most at home, and the straight one, where Harper still retains a secondary residence. On the one side, drag stars BenDeLaCreme and Jinkx Monsoon host a sing-along at a down-home gay bar named for a now-shuttered L.A. lesbian haunt, one of a few Easter eggs for the film’s queer viewers. (The scene may as well be an argument for public funding to keep gay bars in business.) On the other, there’s a sports pub with a terrible sound system called Fratty’s, where a flawlessly cast, ultra-forgettable ex-boyfriend named Connor insists, “You cannot be at this place sober.”
But just when I was ready to dismiss Harper and her entire milieu completely, Happiest Season surprised me with back-to-back yanks on my heartstrings: a beautiful monologue on coming out from Levy and a wrenching performance from Davis as Harper realizes she could lose all her dearest loves at once—both her family of origin and the one she’s chosen. Somehow, DuVall and Holland manage to make room for empathy for Harper and boundaries for Abby. If I didn’t desperately need them to continue making queer rom-coms, I’d suggest they start offering couples therapy.