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Biting the hand that so rarely feeds us?: an honest review of Happiest Season

What would've made Nali Simukulwa happiest this holiday season was some nuanced LGBT+ representation. She reviews Clea DuVall's offering.

*Spoiler alert*

At some point during the festive period, without fail, I curl up on the sofa and binge watch Christmas films. The usual contenders are Love actually (Emma Thompson deserved better), or maybe Elf if I’m after a nostalgic laugh. Year upon year though, the idea of a festive film which offers some meaningful queer representation seemed like a pipe dream too lofty for even Santa to fulfill. So, when I saw Clea Duvall’s Happiest Season being advertised, I couldn’t believe my luck! After all my wishing, it seemed Father Christmas had brought the gays an early gift to assuage the disasters of 2020. But alas, it was too good to be true. From the overly idealistic ending to the shallow characterisation of its lesbian characters, the Happiest Season — much like many a homemade gingerbread house — fell flat.

My issues with the film begin with the storyline itself, the entire plot is centred on coming out.

Albeit, there is certainly an important discussion to be had about the heteronormativity that imposes upon queer people the need to ‘come out’ but these experiences are often triggering – making what should be a light hearted festive viewing experience, a painfully somber reminder of the difficulties of the queer experience.

Abby, played by Kristen Stewart, struggles with the festive period as a result of having lost her parents – a loss made more difficult given that we discover her parents were very enthusiastic about their family holiday traditions. But after being convinced by girlfriend Harper, played by Mackenzie Davis, Abby agrees to accompany Harper to her small-town family home to celebrate Christmas. However, midway through their drive home, Harper admits that she isn’t out to her family and Abby is forced back into the closet and throughout the trip is made to play the role of Harper’s orphaned roommate.

There is a disappointing lack of nuance in the storytelling. Audiences are denied the chance to bond with the two central characters due to their glaring lack of chemistry and the fact that we are scarcely given time to witness the pair interact as a couple before they are forced to put up pretences. Aside from this, the other characters seem cliched as the film plays on many stereotypical tropes, from the close-minded, reputation obsessed, middle-class parents to the backdrop of a claustrophobic small town, the plot could have been lifted from a teenage Wattpad fanfiction. The ending of the film is sweet but very idealistic – even for a rom-com, as we see Abby forgive Harper’s betrayal and the family unite for christmas despite the emotional and physical destruction caused when Harper’s secret is revealed. I can forgive some festive cheesiness, the hallmark channel would have collapsed years ago if we all demanded true cinematic artistry at Christmas-time, but beyond the predictable writing, I fear that by strapping Abby in for a ride of hostility and shame, Happiest Season downplays the trauma of having to repress one’s queerness to be accepted.

Earlier in the film there is a moment of dazzling sincerity where the film burgeons on conveying some real sensitivity; John, Abby’s best friend (played by Dan Levy), comforts Abby; explaining that disparities in upbringing and family reaction lead individuals to accept their sexualities at varying points in life. It would have been great to see more of this nuanced approach to the film’s subject matter but instead, like a flash in the pan, this moment fades to make way for a smiley happy ending that seems incongruous with the rest of the plot.

Kristen Stewart, who plays Abby, won the admiration and respect of many young queer womxn back in 2017 when she confidently claimed her own gayness. It was refreshing to see a celebrity unashamedly and light-heartedly acknowledge their queerness without it being framed as a source of shame or scandal. Following this, it feels like a regression to see Stewart in this role. It does a disservice to LGBT+ audiences if every time we see ourselves represented on-screen, our identity is being problematised. Though it may seem progressive to show this tale of ‘acceptance’, it simply serves as another reminder that so many people find an issue with our existence.

Through its treatment of Riley (played by Aubrey Plaza), Happiest Season managed to undervalue one if its arguably most cherished Lesbian characters. Many fans agree that a more complex and cathartic ending would have been to see Riley and Abby come together, united by their integrity in the face of Harper’s mistreatment. We are sadly denied this. We hear how in high school, Harper shamefully denied her relationship with Riley, choosing to out Riley to their less-than-accepting peers rather than live in her truth. Despite this, years later, warm and likeable Riley is there to guide Harper as she seems set to repeat her mistakes with Abby. Riley is used as a springboard for Harper’s development, a plot move that teeters unsettlingly close to exploitation when we consider that we are told little else about Riley other than her relationship with Harper. Intriguing (and beautiful!) as she is, she remains a mere device, reminding us of the films’ wasted potential.

All of this said, I didn’t hate Happiest Season, perhaps only because of a reluctance to dismiss any new addition to the scarce canon of queer romcoms. Or, perhaps out of gratitude as I couldn’t bear the emotional consequences if the film were to have an unhappy ending. Though, this raises the question, is this it for queer audiences? Are we forever forced into acquiescence over irresponsibly written films – too afraid to offer our honest and valid opinions lest we be accused of biting the hand that so rarely feeds us? I hope not. Ah, well fingers crossed Santa delivers something better next year.

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