Photo by Lacey Terrell
**This article contains spoilers for “Happiest Season” (2020).**
In late November of 2020, “Happiest Season” was released. “Happiest Season” was written and directed by Clea DuVall, a lesbian actress, writer, producer, and director. This movie follows a queer woman named Abby, played by Kristen Stewart, who plans to visit her girlfriend’s family for Christmas, only to find out that her girlfriend is not yet out to her parents. Queer Christmas movies make up a niche that I’m surprised to find very little content in — cozy Christmas vibes with queer characters certainly give me warm and fuzzy feelings, and that was certainly the case in “Happiest Season,” with the exception being the scenes with angst or tension between the characters.
The movie starts with opening credits accompanied by a Christmas-themed slideshow of pictures that document the main characters, Abby and Harper, meeting, falling in love, and moving in together. In the first scene, these two main characters agree to visit Harper’s family for Christmas despite the negative connotations Abby has associated with the holiday, as she is an orphan and Christmas brings up painful memories for her. However, there is one problem with this plan: Harper has not come out to her parents, but she told Abby that she had. What follows is a funny but painful series of events in which Abby and Harper walk on eggshells the whole vacation to avoid outing Harper to her parents until she is ready to come out to them on her own terms. Harper promised Abby that she will come out to her parents over the holiday, but with a father involved in politics and heteronormativity deeply steeped in the culture of her family by her mother, father, and two sisters alike, she’s very reluctant to do so.
For Abby, the holiday does not go as planned. At the beginning of the movie, it’s revealed that Abby was planning on asking Harper to marry her. However, despite her attempts to hide her identity and her feelings for Harper from Harper’s family, they still do not like her as much as she hoped. On top of all of this, the family’s opinion of her is further soured after the children of Harper’s sister, Sloane, frame Abby for shoplifting.
Harper, meanwhile, has been thrust back into a toxic household and does not react well, falling into old habits like competing with her sister for parental approval, and she becomes increasingly panicked as Abby attempts to hold her to her promise of coming out to her parents. Along the way, we find out that Harper has hurt other people in her desperation to try to conceal her identity from her parents, including her ex-girlfriend, who she forcefully outed to protect herself, and her ex-boyfriend, who still doesn’t understand why they broke up.
To be honest, I’m tired of coming out stories. It’s an overused storyline in queer media, and it feels reductionist to boil down queer people’s stories down to the things that involve cisgender, heterosexual people, i.e. the cis/heteronormative performance queer people all must put on at some point in our lives in order to be accepted by a heteronormative society. This point is especially obvious when you consider that there are so many other queer stories that could be explored using queer media instead of the same palatable story over and over again.
In a way, that perfectly captures what “Happiest Season” is about. Harper is constantly putting on this straight facade at the expense of Abby’s dignity and both of their identities, in the same way that Hollywood repeats the same story over and over again to placate a cisgender, heterosexual audience.
However, that doesn’t mean that I will ever discredit this movie for the story it tells and the impact it has on people that relate to it. “Happiest Season” moved me to tears on multiple occasions, and its storyline is unique compared to other queer media about closeted relationships in several ways. First, the relationship and the main interactions are between two grown adults, not teenagers, as most coming out movies focus on. The characters are also not portrayed as perfect by any means, especially Harper. Throughout the movie, she makes decision after decision out of fear, and in doing so, she hurts the people around her, especially Abby, even after promising that the holiday break would be a chance for Abby to heal from the death of her parents and learn to love Christmas again. Not to mention, she makes several questionable moves towards her ex-boyfriend, Connor; those scenes are beyond me. I think they may have been there to show one of the ways that Harper’s lying about her past drives a wedge between her and Abby, but in my opinion, these scenes make it difficult to sympathize with Harper as a character. The scenes showing her brushing off Abby to hang out with Connor and the other generally insensitive actions she takes are unnecessary considering there are already plenty of ways that Harper is imperfect without including an emotional affair, and it makes Abby’s forgiveness of Harper’s actions at the end of the movie difficult for me to understand.
All the issues that are developed throughout the movie come to a head at a Christmas party that Harper’s family is hosting, one where a politician that could do wonders for Harper’s father’s career will be in attendance. Before the party, Abby had called her friend John, played by the ever-hilarious Dan Levy, and told him that she can’t stand hiding herself anymore, so he shows up at the Christmas party to take Abby back to her house.
The root of Harper’s visceral fear of coming out is fully revealed when, as she begs Abby to stay, Harper reveals some troubling truths about the way her family worked growing up; love wasn’t given freely in the Caldwell family, but rather was something that Harper and her sisters “competed for, and if [they] veered off their course, [they] lost it.” Mackenzie Davis acts out this scene beautifully — the tone and cadence of her voice, as well as the way she delivers Harper’s desperate rambling about not wanting to lose Abby perfectly portrays the utter terror that Harper clearly feels about coming out to her parents.
Sloane walks in as Abby is comforting Harper, and sees Abby holding Harper’s face as she is just about to kiss her. Harper’s desperation, only barely quelled, comes back in full force as she begs Sloane not to out her to her parents. As they walk upstairs towards the party, they find Sloane’s husband in a closet, actively cheating on Sloane with one of the party-goers. The scene then devolves into a comical fight between the two sisters as they both try to get to the party and spill each other’s secrets. Sloane gets there first. When she outs Harper to their parents, there is a deafening moment of silence as the camera switches between the various expressions of horror and confusion on the character’s faces, and one of expectation on Abby’s as she stands in the doorway. When Harper finally speaks to deny it, Abby’s face falls, and she shakes her head and leaves.
John follows Abby out and delivers a heart-wrenching speech about how all queer stories are different — although Abby’s parents were loving and accepting when she came out, John’s dad kicked him out and didn’t speak to him for 13 years. What we all have in common, John says, is “that moment right before you say those words, when your heart is racing and you don’t know what’s coming next.”
I know the urge to hide like an old friend; it’s something I am still fighting. It’s possible that it is just my personality to retract into myself whenever I get close to vulnerability, but there are times where I wonder if the existence of my queerness in a heteronormative society is the reason why it wasn’t as hard to hold hands with my ex-boyfriend in front of my parents. So when I see Harper look back and forth between Abby and her parents after Sloane tries to out her, spluttering out indignation as the last vestiges of a defense mechanism she’s built all her life acts up again, I see a shameful part of myself reflected back, and I can imagine that some other queer people do, too. Maybe some of us see ourselves in Abby’s disappointed shake of the head as she leaves, instead. And that’s sort of the point, isn’t it? There are no bad guys in this story, just queer people trying their hardest to break down the different protective shields they have placed around themselves. This doesn’t make what Harper put Abby through fair in any way, but what is “fair” in a system that presents queer people with the dilemma of being who they are or potentially losing people close to them?
“Happiest Season” is a story about desperation, about survival. But most importantly, it’s about love and understanding and accepting the people we love, flaws and all. And aren’t those all the same thing?
Author: Emma Blakely (They/She/He)
Copy Editors: Jennifer Collier (She/They), Bella (She/They)