The holidays can be complicated, to say the least. Maybe you’re seeing that annoying cousin again who always traps you in conversation, or you miss the last flight home before a snowstorm sets in and you can’t leave. Perhaps you’re even harboring a secret that you’re desperately hoping doesn’t get revealed over dinner.
That’s the situation Harper (Mackenzie Davis) finds herself facing in Happiest Season, a new Christmas romantic comedy from Hulu (though I’d argue it is much more of a family drama than the comedy the trailers would have you believe it is). Harper has been living with her serious girlfriend Abby (a pitch perfect Kristen Stewart), and in a fit of passion she later regrets, Harper invites Abby home for the holidays. A normally cynical Abby accepts happily, intending to propose, but Harper soon reveals the truth: she isn’t out to her family, and Abby will need to pretend to be her roommate to avoid tipping off Harper’s family.
Thus begins an often entertaining but also emotionally draining ruse as Abby is forced to hide her true self amongst Harper’s type A family. There’s her politician father and mother (Victor Garber and Mary Steenburgen), her Instagram mogul sister Sloane (Alison Brie) and her family, and her younger sister Jane (Mary Holland), who is a delight to be protected at all costs. Harper’s rivalry with Sloane provides the reasoning behind Harper’s fear of coming out, as we learn early on that they’ve been battling for favorite daughter since childhood (Jane is always a distant third, a travesty considering how adorably Holland plays her). Harper fears that if she tells the truth, she won’t be worthy of her parents’ love anymore. Davis is excellent at playing the tension Harper feels, eyes darting between her family and Abby at all times. Even when Harper does things that are hurtful to Abby in the name of keeping her secret, your heart aches for her. The same can’t be said for her family, who are on the whole very unlikeable. Even some third act soul searching doesn’t make up for their earlier attitudes, and the most unbelievable aspect of this film is how it resolves for this reason.
But truth be told, the stars of this movie are Stewart, Daniel Levy as Abby’s best friend John, and Aubrey Plaza as Harper’s high school girlfriend Riley. Stewart lights up the screen whenever she’s on it, whether it’s getting laughs as she hides in a literal closet to escape Harper’s mother or when she’s silently crying after being slighted again by the woman she describes as “her person.” Even while you understand Harper’s dilemma, it’s hard not to root for Abby to stand up for herself and find someone worthy of her love. Levy starts out as comic relief (and very effective comic relief at that), but John quickly becomes Abby’s grounding force as she struggles to come to terms with her situation. In a conversation later in the film that I won’t spoil the specific contents of, Levy brings the audience to tears with his sensitive and understanding performance.
Plaza is also excellent as Riley and understands Abby’s predicament more than anyone as Harper’s ex. Riley could easily have become a villain out to steal Abby away from Harper, but Plaza plays Riley as a confident, out woman who just doesn’t want to see another person get hurt, whether that be Abby or Harper, despite her painful history with the latter. Riley quietly supports Abby through her stressful time with Harper’s family and even offers a completely unearned olive branch to Harper. It says something about Plaza’s on-screen charisma that by the end of the film, a large part of me was rooting for Abby to run off with Riley. Much like Levy and Stewart, Plaza gets to have laugh out loud moments along with quieter emotional scenes, and the three of them together elevate this film beyond a typical rom-com.
On the whole, Happiest Season is an entertaining holiday watch that offers some funny moments (Levy and Holland do much of the heavy lifting in the comedy department), but it’s also a surprisingly emotional story. The trailers and advertising are upbeat and happy, promising some hijinks on the way to a happy ending, but the themes and storylines in the actual film can be quite dark. This isn’t a bad thing, and indeed taking Harper’s journey seriously is important, but it does make it difficult to watch at times. This is particularly apparent as the film nears its conclusion, since the rom-com run time doesn’t leave a lot of room to wrap everything up with a neat bow and it feels a bit rushed. But the film deserves credit for telling a story that we normally don’t see on-screen. The strong performances by the lead actors make Happiest Season a movie worth watching.
Happiest Season is available now on Hulu. Check out the trailer below!