Since the dawn of time (well, at least 2000), the Hallmark and Lifetime channels have been churning out predictable holiday rom-coms. Whether it’s the ad executive who returns to her hometown and falls in love with the local lumberjack or the ad executive who returns to her hometown and fights with, then falls in love with the local innkeeper, every year it’s the same thing. Sometimes, there’s royalty involved. Millions of Americans tune in for this. A small side economy of merchandise has even sprung up from this industry, with collectibles from wine glasses to socks to a version of Monopoly.
While holiday movies have their fair share of queer fans, we have not been rewarded with mainstream queer holiday love stories.
But while holiday movies have their fair share of queer fans, we have not been rewarded with many mainstream queer holiday love stories. It was only this year that Lifetime announced a holiday film starring two male leads (and Fran Drescher), “The Christmas Set-Up.” Hallmark, after much petitioning from fans, is debuting its first gaycentric holiday film, “The Christmas House,” this holiday season, as well. However the crown jewel of this suddenly queer-friendly holiday season was announced all the way back in 2018, with the news that Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis would be starring in a queer holiday rom-com called “Happiest Season,” directed by queer icon Clea Duvall and streaming on Hulu on Nov. 25, just in time for Thanksgiving. With all the stress and sadness 2020 has brought, having a major queer movie like this come out right now is our own holiday miracle. And it shows faith in a community of viewers that is often overlooked when it comes to the storytelling and happily-ever-afters we all cherish.
Stewart plays Abby, a lesbian millennial who plans to propose to her girlfriend Harper (Davis) on Christmas with Harper’s whole family as witnesses. Only one problem: Harper lied about being out to her parents and sisters. It’s a sticky situation many LGBTQ people have found themselves in around the holidays. Maybe it’s even happened to you. Your partner takes you home for the holidays and suddenly you are in the proverbial closet again, a place you thought you left a long time ago. It can be painful for everyone involved, especially when the situation puts you right back in touch with those old shameful feelings.
There have been a handful of queer holiday films that predate “Happiest Season.” 2018’s “Lez Bomb,” written and directed by star Jenna Laurenzo, actually has a similar premise. Tello Films’ “Season of Love” premiered last year and featured the interweaving holiday stories of three queer couples. This summer, Netflix released “A New York Christmas Wedding,” about a bride-to-be who wonders “what if” after she’s visited by an angel who shows her what life could have been if she followed her heart (toward her best friend.) While sweet and certainly much appreciated, these films were all missing something that “Happiest Season” has in abundance: star power.
Stewart’s personal and professional gravitas made the world take notice. Co-star Davis is a major rising star in television and film and has already taken up residence in queer audiences’ hearts after starring in the Emmy-award winning “Black Mirror: San Junipero.” And Daniel Levy, who has in recent years become a queer Hollywood It Boy, lends his signature smirk and sardonic humor to the film. Stewart, Levy and Duvall, the film’s co-writer and director, are all openly queer, something that is both groundbreaking and heartwarming.
But perhaps the best news of all is that “Happiest Season” is actually good. Indeed, it’s more than good: it’s damn delightful. Stewart, who often plays serious roles, shines like the top of the Rockefeller tree (well, 2019’s tree at least) in this comedy. She’s a perfect mix of adorable and awkward as Abby, who is trying not to let Harper’s deception bring her down. She has wonderful chemistry with Davis, providing a main couple you will be rooting for.
Davis brings a tender sweetness to Harper, who both fears the rejection of her family and craves her connection with Abby. As Abby’s best friend John, Levy plays a version of his famous David Rose character, a quirky and quick queer man whose tongue is sharp, but whose heart is soft. Not a huge departure for him, but fun to witness, nonetheless. Harper’s high school ex-girlfriend Riley, played by Aubrey Plaza, also brings some serious heat to the film. Plaza has intense chemistry with just about anyone she’s on screen with.
Stewart, who often plays serious roles, shines like the top of the Rockefeller tree (well, 2019’s tree at least) in this comedy.
And co-writer Mary Holland plays Harper’s nerdy, overlooked and scene-stealing sister Jane. Holland is a physical comedy force to be reckoned with. To go along with these charming performances, the film includes a very queer Christmas soundtrack with tracks by out musicians like Tegan and Sara, Sia, LP, and Brandy Clark. You’ll have Anne Marie’s bop of a holiday tune, “Think of Christmas” stuck in your head until New Year's.
And sure, some viewers will say that the film’s coming out storyline has been done to death. Normally I would agree. However, it’s a mistake to think coming out isn’t still incredibly fraught in America, and the way “Happiest Season” handles the conflict between Harper and Abby is tough and touching in all the best ways. It’s certainly something that many of us can relate to — and it’s great that this kind of plot is going to be seen by so many different Americans. While it is a queer story, it’s not just a story for queer audiences.
It still takes a lot of courage to be who we are, especially on a day with the people who raised us perhaps to be something very different. Abby sees what the cost of that is through Harper’s eyes, and Abby gives Harper a reason to live her most authentic life. I can’t think of a better Christmas present than that.