Since Clea DuVall’s gay Christmas rom-com, Happiest Season, debuted on Hulu last month, it has been the subject of a roiling debate among queer women. Is the premise—a closeted lesbian forces her girlfriend to pretend they’re both straight while visiting her family for Christmas—offensive and dated, or a light-hearted twist on an indignity too many queers have suffered? Was it rude for DuVall to serve gays a narrative of trauma disguised as a rom-com? Does the happy ending encourage toxic relationship dynamics?
With a few reservations, I loved Happiest Season, but I’m not ashamed to admit that I graded it on a curve. There have been so few queer comedies in recent memory, and even fewer starring A-listers like Kristen Stewart, that I was primed to forgive Happiest Season’s faults in exchange for a central character whose romantic and social life looks a little more like mine, albeit with a few dozen more velvet blazers.
I was ready to do the same for A New York Christmas Wedding, a new film from writer-director Otoja Abit that’s currently streaming on Netflix. In the hallowed tradition of Christmas stories about a magical figure showing a protagonist what her life could have been like if she’d made a different choice in the past, A New York Christmas Wedding follows Jennifer Ortiz (Nia Fairweather), whose overbearing mother-in-law is planning her Christmas Eve wedding to David (Abit, directing himself in a small part), when an angel reveals an alternate world in which she ended up marrying her childhood best friend, Gabby (Adriana DeMeo). I knew this movie wouldn’t pass my personal version of the Bechdel test—in my favorite queer films, the main characters are openly queer at the beginning and openly queer at the end—but I hoped it would be a sweet musing on following one’s heart, or at least a nice Christmas-y love story with some queer vibes and a rare Black lead in the genre.
Instead, I watched a cautionary tale about teen pregnancy, stillbirth, suicide, and time travel as the only way for an adult to be her true queer self. A New York Christmas Wedding was so lacking in any wisp of queer reality or love that it doesn’t even qualify for my extra-points-for-gay-stuff program. The plot of this movie is so bizarre, the script so contrived, and the queer substance so off-kilter that I can hardly believe the thing I watched is real—let alone that multiple people greenlit it for distribution on Netflix.
I’m now going to reveal what happens in this movie, because it is impossible to describe the depth of its mania if I don’t. When I first heard about it, I assumed it was a parody of holiday movie clichés based on the title alone. (They should have gone one step further and called it A Surprise New York Christmas Wedding, which would have been accurate to the plot.) It’s not, but there are a fair number of recognizable tropes in the movie: The film opens with a line about the 8 million love stories in New York City, Jennifer has left her job at Goldman Sachs for a lower-paying but presumably more fulfilling one at a vet’s office, and Christmas is a tough time of year for her because both of her parents are dead. The holiday also marks the anniversary of Jennifer’s friendship-ending falling-out with Gabby. In a flashback from 20 years ago, we see a teenage Jennifer preparing a Christmas spread for Gabby, who’s supposed to come over to help her decorate the tree. (Both girls are played by younger actors in the flashback.) Gabby bails on their plans so she can sleep with a jerk named Vinnie, and Jennifer is so upset that she tells Gabby to lose her number. Through some painful expository dialogue, we learn from present-day Jennifer that Gabby died before they could reconcile. Then, on the subway home to her fiancé, Jennifer longingly gazes at two canoodling femmes, an oh-so-subtle indication that there may be some sublimated queer desire coloring her memory of her friend.
From there, A New York Christmas Wedding begins its journey from a cheesy, low-budget Christmas movie to a one that would be deeply disturbing if it were remotely possible to take it seriously. Jennifer meets a handsome man, Azrael, when he gets hit by a car. (We instantly know Azrael isn’t a threat to Jennifer’s engagement; in case we didn’t clock him by his swishy hips, Azrael begins and ends almost every sentence with “gurrrl!”) After Jennifer shares her Christmas woes with him, she wakes up not in her sleek Manhattan apartment, but in a cheery and cluttered bedroom in her native borough of Queens, being licked by a dog she doesn’t know. Gabby is alive, and she’s yelling about a meeting they’ve scheduled with their priest. Jennifer is dumbstruck, but soon learns that Azrael is her guardian angel and has given her two days to live in an alternate universe in which she and Gabby not only reunited, but ended up engaged, before she’s sent back to her real life.
Jennifer’s dad is also alive in this alternate world, for some reason, which raises a few of the film’s many unsettling, unanswered questions: Did Jennifer’s rift with Gabby, or her decision to marry David, have something to do with her dad’s death? And if not, why isn’t her mom alive in the fantasy world, too?
I could spend the rest of this review unpacking the troubling implications of those questions, but instead, I’ll move on to another blip in the film’s logic: how quickly everyone accepts that Jennifer knows nothing about what’s going on in her own life. When she misgenders the dog she shares with Gabby, Gabby barely bats an eye. Then, when they meet with their priest (Chris Noth, in an interesting career choice), Gabby recounts her entire history with him, which allows both Jennifer and viewers to absorb an entire Lifetime movie’s worth of a backstory. Her monologue makes the labored exposition of the film’s early scenes seem positively restrained. “Do you remember my senior year of high school? I came to you. I confessed to being sexually active,” she says. “Months later, I found out I was pregnant. You stood by me. I was a scared, 18-year-old girl whose old-fashioned Italian parents disowned her.” Got it!
Gabby begs the priest to flout the Catholic Church and marry her and Jennifer, because “the Supreme Court ruled” and Pope Francis is kinder toward gays than his predecessors. (For all of its waylaid themes, this movie is suddenly about homophobia in faith communities too.) The priest rebuffs the couple for what we’re told is the second time. But the next day, at the parish Christmas service, he gives a big speech about how Catholics need to stop being homophobic to prevent more gay Catholic suicides. He literally says “love is love,” to cheers from the parishioners (with a few nominal walkouts). He then calls out the names of every queer person in the congregation and brings them up to the altar, effectively outing them, so they can all take communion together while the straight congregants look on approvingly. The priest says this is a big deal and some kind of first—but in real life, the Catholic Church doesn’t bar gay people from communion. It does require that people confess their sins before communion, and it deems gay sex a sin, so I guess if any of the queer people who were non-consensually summoned to the altar had had gay sex and not confessed it to a priest yet, the communion-giving would have contravened Catholic teaching, making it some kind of history-making moment for Father Big?
Yes, this is a very stupid technicality in an already-stupid movie. But it’s bizarre that the film makes such a fuss over gay Catholics taking communion, which happens every Sunday, when the priest then proceeds to perform a surprise wedding ceremony for Jennifer and Gabby, which would never happen in a million years. Apparently, since their last conversation, the priest decided to throw away his career by marrying two women, then notified Gabby, who was able to plan an entire wedding and reception as a surprise for Jennifer—all in the hours between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, which they spent by each other’s sides.
I haven’t even gotten to the craziest part yet! Take a deep breath, because you’re going to need it. During the wedding reception, Jennifer steps out into a hallway to have a conversation with Azrael, who reminds her that she only has a few hours left before she must return to the real world, in which she is engaged to a man. Then, the angel drops a truth bomb. “Jennifer,” he says, “you should know that I am the deceased child of Gabrielle and Vincent.” …ex-squeeze me?! This adult man-angel died as a fetus in teenage Gabby’s 29th week of pregnancy—she had a stillbirth—but continued to age after his death in utero? In … heaven, I guess? And somehow learned to walk, speak, and perform guardian-angel duties in his afterlife? And also became flamboyantly gay, as a dead fetus in heaven? Azrael reminds Jennifer that his last name is Gabison. Get it?! Gabby’s son??!
Whew. After Gabby wakes up in her Manhattan apartment again, next to David, she drags him across the river to the church in Queens to find out what happened to Gabby in the real world. The aging church receptionist, who casually reveals that she is also gay (why not?), tells Jennifer and David that Father Big was fired for facilitating secret gay weddings, and that Gabby died by apparent suicide after her stillbirth at a home for pregnant teens. When David realizes that Jennifer was probably in love with Gabby, he asks her, “Should I be worried?” HE IS THREATENED BY JENNIFER’S LOVE FOR A FORMER FRIEND WHO DIED ALMOST TWO DECADES AGO. And Jennifer just smiles and assures David that she loves him now. Real normal and healthy relationship dynamic we’ve got here.
As the couple goes to leave the church, Azrael, appears in the pews. Jennifer joins him, and he tells her that he can take her back in time to re-live part of her life if she wants. She just has to tell him what moment she’d like to return to. This leads to one of the best-worst lines in the film: “Depending on how far back, I will never be able to visit you again, and I will cease to exist,” Azrael says. “And I’m OK with that.” This brave now-adult ghost of a dead gay fetus is a worthy (and long overdue!) role model for now-adult ghosts of dead gay fetuses everywhere, who will finally get to see themselves represented onscreen.
Jennifer chooses to rewind her life 20 years, to the day of her fight with Gabby. On that day, as a teen with the life experience of a 30-something, she is calm and semi-supportive when Gabby decides to sleep with Vinnie, instead of getting mad at her. This somehow convinces Gabby to not sleep with Vinnie and opt to decorate a Christmas tree with Jennifer instead. Gabby arrives at Jennifer’s home holding a gigantic basket of oversized candy canes. She is actively licking one of them. Jennifer confesses her love for Gabby, and Gabby reciprocates. They exchange a single chaste kiss, with the basket of candy canes somewhere between them—then seamlessly transition to decorating the tree. If you’ve ever been a high-schooler, you know that after one single kiss with the person you’ve been lusting after for years, you are not inclined to calmly hang some ornaments. But hang ornaments they do, and one of those ornaments is a figure of Gabby’s now-adult dead gay fetus, who will never actually exist because Gabby ended up deciding not to have procreative sex that day.
There are too many other fantastically absurd moments in A New York Christmas Wedding to count. But here are a few: At one point, Vinnie sees adult Jennifer and Gabby together and calls them “bulldaggers,” a slur that fell out of fashion sometime around the Nixon era. David’s mom describes him to Jennifer as “the heir to a Fortune 500 company”—as if this was news to his fiancée—but no one ever specifies which one. Jennifer’s finance-to-veterinary career track is never mentioned after the first scenes, so we have no idea what her job situation is in her alternate world. Gabby says having sex with Vinnie was how she found out she was gay—one of the stalest tropes of queer storytelling—so when Jennifer goes back in time and prevents Gabby from having sex with Vinnie, doesn’t she also keep Gabby from that moment of self-realization? How does that track with their happily ever after? We also never learn what’s up with Jennifer’s dad’s death! Does he still die in her back-in-time timeline? Probably not, since he was still alive in her fantasy world, but then—what does she do to prevent his death?! And if Jennifer is now a 30-something-year-old in a teenager’s body—she must be, because she makes a different choice based on her knowledge of the life she lived first—how should we feel about her making out with a high-schooler? Not great, I’d say!
A New York Christmas Wedding’s representation of queer life and love is also among the weirdest and worst I’ve seen. Like the central couple in Happiest Season, the two women seem miserable: They spend most of their time together fighting over their 20-year-old conflict, misunderstanding each other because one has been dropped into their timeline unawares, and confronting homophobic parents, neighbors, and faith traditions. They have no sexual chemistry (though, to be fair, Fairweather and DeMeo both do their damnedest with the hopeless material) and seem to view one another as best friends or sisters more than lovers. Their one sexual encounter in the parallel universe limited to lots of lacey lingerie, smooching, and palming each other’s thighs.
To make matters worse, Jennifer seems entirely motivated by grief, not love. Of course she’d want to go back in time after spending two days in a universe where her father and childhood best friend never died! But why should she have to make the now-adult ghost of a dead gay fetus bend the rules of space and time—and eliminate himself in the process!—to find happiness? Can’t she find another woman to be with in all of New York freaking City? It’s not even clear that that’s what she wants. “You’ve been running away from yourself all these years,” Azrael tells Jennifer. So … what does that mean in the context of a dead crush? Jennifer seems like she might be bisexual—she says she loves David and seems to find it hard to decide whether to leave him for a trip backward in time. But has she been running away from the fact that she’s gay, and doesn’t want to be with a man at all? Because otherwise, it is totally normal, and even advisable, to move on from the crush you had two decades ago on a friend who is now dead. It’s not “running away from yourself” to stop holding out hope that you could still end up marrying that dead crush! It’s sanity.
As one of my friends pointed out to me, A New York Christmas Wedding manages to include all the worst elements of bad queer movies that came out around the time Jennifer and Gabby were leaning over a basket of candy canes for their first kiss: Abysmal writing. Main characters who are all high femmes. A plot almost entirely made up of loose ends. A Bible verse about “fornicators” and “sodomites.” Next to no sex. Teen pregnancy and death. It’s offensively bad, and yet I must advise that if you watch one thing this December, make it this piece-of-trash holiday movie. I don’t know about you, but I needed the laugh.