Let’s call it progress that “Happiest Season” suggests gay people are as entitled to mawkish, contrived holiday movies as straight people are.
The premise is that Kristen Stewart’s Abby, not a big fan of decking her halls with boughs of holly, is meeting the family of fiancée Harper (Mackenzie Davis) at Christmastime. As Abby is minutes from arriving at her future in-laws’ garland-festooned door, Harper reveals that, oh yeah, she hasn’t told her family she’s a lesbian, so Abby must lie for the next five days, pretending to be her extremely straight roommate.
That, of course, is the moment when a real person would say, “I’m not going back into the closet or to your family Christmas. Also, we are through.” But Abby agrees, setting up a would-be farcical mishmash of “The Family Stone” and every mistaken-identity Lifetime holiday movie ever made. Except the Lifetime movie would be better because it wouldn’t take itself seriously, whereas “Happiest Season” wants to say Important Things About the Human Condition.
Actor Clea DuVall wrote and directed “Happiest Season” and attracted an excellent cast, including Mary Steenburgen and Victor Garber as Harper’s parents, Alison Brie as her competitive sister, Dan Levy as Abby’s pal and Aubrey Plaza as Harper’s (secret) ex. Unfortunately, the only one given anything interesting to do is Plaza, who looks exactly like she always does but drops the arch act she perfected on “Parks and Recreation” and is, thus, almost unrecognizably sincere.
I felt especially bad for Steenburgen, who deserves better than this one-note control freak role, passive-aggressively forcing a litany of holiday “fun” on her loved ones. (Nonsensically, Harper claims her Christmas will make Abby love the holiday, even though the entire family seems to hate it.) Unlike the other characters, Steenburgen’s mean mom doesn’t even get to reveal a big secret in the last minutes of the movie.
You’ve probably already guessed that those secrets get unveiled, one after the other, while the family is unwrapping presents. One family member unties the bow on an unhappy marriage, one tears the tissue paper off a hitherto-unknown talent, etc. There’s so much melodrama to literally unpack that “Happiest Season” begins to resemble “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” played as farce. And, once all the secrets are un-secreted, everyone is immediately accepting of everyone else in a way that makes Harper’s failure to come out sooner even less believable.
Look, coming out is a tricky, ongoing process and everyone does it differently. It’s certainly possible that 30-year-olds with extremely supportive families are reluctant to do it in 2020, but “Happiest Season” never manages to convince us that this particular 30-year-old would behave like this, or that anyone else would. One other tiny flaw in this comedy: It’s not one bit funny.