“Happiest Season” is a home-for-the-holidays movie that serves up what you expect, along with something you don’t. The second feature directed by the actress-turned-filmmaker Clea DuVall (“The Intervention”), who shows a singular flair for shaping performances as well as a lush new visual confidence, the film is cheeky and blithe and situational, suffused with enough upscale Christmas froth to get the audience high on spiced-cocktail fumes. In a key scene near the end, it’s more than willing to go over-the-top. Yet “Happiest Season” is also a deft and humane dramedy of manners that’s really about something. It’s a coming-out story that feels highly specific to our era, even as it keeps pelting us with entertaining family curveballs. You’re not likely to confuse a movie like this one with art, yet “Happiest Season” is formula done with feeling; you can believe in the people you’re watching. The movie is a true romance — not because it’s a rom-com about two people stumbling toward love, but because it’s a rom-com about two people already in love navigating the minefield of what love is. That all adds up to a Christmas movie that lifts your spirit in just the right ways.
I’m been a fan of Kristen Stewart’s from day one, but in all those years when the haters — and there were a lot of them — griped that she was too moody and recessive and self-conscious, too cool for school in an I’m-twirling-my-hair-because-I’m-uptight-about-my-superiority way, even though I didn’t agree (I thought she was closer to the young Jane Fonda), there was a part of me that did want to see Stewart show off her lighter, freer, more contented and companionable side, to revel in the life-glow she had as a star.
That’s what she does in “Happiest Season,” even as the character she’s playing is caught in a major bind. Wearing long platinum hair that sets off her easy, open grin, Stewart plays Abby, who has been living with Harper (Mackenzie Davis) for a while, and they’re a serious couple: patient, devoted, affectionate, good company. The two live in Pittsburgh, where Abby is working toward her art-history doctorate at Carnegie Mellon and Harper is a political reporter on The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Their principal difference appears to be that Harper loves Christmas and Abby doesn’t (or so she says). But when Harper invites Abby to spend the holiday with her family in Grove City about 50 miles away, she agrees to come. Maybe that’s because Abby has a secret scheme: She plans to propose to Harper in front of her family, and even ask for her father’s blessing.
If you want to know how conventional “Happiest Season” is, it’s a movie in which Abby has a gay best friend, John (Daniel Levy, from “Schitt’s Creek”), who says things like “Ask her dad for his blessing? Way to stick it to the patriarchy!” But Abby’s plan hits a snag on the car ride up, when Harper confesses that she has never told her family about Abby; she has never even come out to them. So Abby suddenly has to pretend to be Harper’s straight roommate, as well as an “orphan” who had nowhere to go for Christmas. (Abby, in fact, lost her parents when she was 19, but it’s a running gag that everyone in Harper’s home treats her like a wayward child refugee.)
The duplicity, at first, sounds like the basic stuff of a holiday sitcom. Except that how many times has a situation like this one actually played out? At heart, “Happiest Season” is a serious, at times revolutionary mainstream comedy rooted in the sadness of a world where the closet, for too many people, still persists in some form.
Harper’s parents live in a stately brick mini-mansion that looks, inside and out, like it was built to be on a Christmas card, and they’re welcoming if slightly stuffy people. Her father, Ted (Victor Garber), is a city councilman who’s running for mayor, and he’s full of small-time braggadocio; her mom, Tipper (Mary Steenburgen), is a flighty but calculating political wife addicted to updating her husband’s social-media profile. They seem harmless, yet they’re traditional and temperamentally conservative folks, which means that they think having a gay daughter would be a shameful scandal. Harper, reading those signals, has kept herself locked up inside, and she can’t seem to find the right moment to break out. What she doesn’t realize is that there’s never going to be a right moment.
“Happiest Season” keeps introducing characters who, in a lesser film, would have been triggers for megaplex broadness. Out to dinner on the first night, Tipper invites Harper’s old high-school boyfriend, the preppie hunk Connor (Jake McDorman), hoping to rekindle that spark. There are run-ins with Riley (Aubrey Plaza, who can turn a simple deadpan stare into dish), Harper’s first girlfriend — and, as we learn, the first casualty of Harper’s decision not to be open about who she is. We’re all geared up for a movie designed to push buttons of jealousy, possessiveness, and so forth.
But that’s where Stewart’s airy charisma comes in. Her Abby isn’t undone by any of this; she’s just trying to get through the weekend and play along with Harper’s I’m-a-straight-girl ruse. For all the Christmas boozing going on, “Happiest Season” is not a movie of cheap comic shots. At a party where Ted gives a speech and schmoozes a key donor (Ana Gasteyer, delightfully putting on airs as a florid kingmaker), Abby surveys all the lying going on and takes it in stride. Harper and her two sisters are a riot of tangled rivalry — she and the mean, mercenary Sloane, who parades her mixed-race children like accessories, despise one another, but the way that Alison Brie plays Sloane, she invests every barb with a deadly twinkle of awareness. Meanwhile, the hapless Jane, who’s working on an epic fantasy novel, is a geek who has spent her life taking on the role of family doormat, all to get out of the way of her two shining-star siblings. Mary Holland, who co-wrote the movie’s script along with DuVall, plays her as a hilariously off-kilter runt version of a Kristen Wiig neurotic.
That script is dotted with droll lines, but the best thing about it is the way it brings the conflict to a head. Abby, watching Harper give the closeted performance that she’s been giving her whole life, sees a side of her that she doesn’t like — the one who play-acts and denies herself almost too well. In a movie made 30 years ago, this might have been framed as a personal-is-political disagreement. The grace of “Happiest Season” is that the film views it as nothing less than a spiritual dilemma, one that exists at the traffic-jam intersection of identity, politics, and love.
Stewart underplays beautifully, cueing every scene to her reactive slyness but leaving room for Mackenzie Davis to take over the movie and make it sing. And what an actor Davis is! Like Julia Roberts in “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” she acts with so much emotion that she tears a hole in the rom-com frivolity. Even when the over-the-top moment happens (a Christmas party that flirts with disaster then falls into it), the family dynamics remain true, and Harper remains torn: between the “good” daughter she was and the woman she is. But that’s when Davis’ performance takes wing; she shows you nothing less than a soul in formation. It’s Harper’s destiny to hit bottom and bounce back, better than before, and Davis makes Harper’s decision to declare who she is the ultimate Christmas present to herself. The way this movie works, it’s also a gift to the world.