Good or Bad, ‘Happiest Season’ is the Christmas Movie I Needed Growing Up (And Now)

by Nicole Watlington | December 20, 2020

“Everybody’s story is different. There’s your version and my version, and everything in between.” 

—John (Dan Levy), Happiest Season

Baked goods, princes, small-town charm, Vanessa Hudgens, and Christmas Eve miracles are some of the qualities you can find in any Holiday rom-com. Queer love, however, seems to be missing from those stories…until now? When I was a teenager, my mom and I formed a Christmas tradition called Christmas Rom-Com Nights. Starting November 1st we would pick one or two nights a week to watch any light-hearted Christmas movie — we would wrap up our movie nights around January 15th (we’re from Puerto Rico, the Holidays here last that long). Most of the time, if not all the time, those movies fell within the tropes of romantic comedies. Cheesy, cringey, over-acted, inconsistent, heteronormative rom-coms. Yes, a lot of them were bad films, but it did not matter. We didn’t watch these movies to gain something other than feel-good entertainment and a dose of holiday cheer. Our discourse would go as far as “This one wasn’t as good as the one we saw last week.” Yes…maybe criticizing some of the absurdities and poor creative decisions were the highlight of these nights. But in the end, it was essentially just a way to bond and enjoy the holidays. 

When I went away to college we reduced the number of films we would watch per week. That means that I started to be somewhat selective with what we would watch whenever I came home during Christmas break. I also started longing for representation and stories that could be a little bit more relatable. While I was very fascinated by stories about young adults who leave their hometowns to pursue their dreams, I was also drawn to narratives about young girls coming to terms with their sexuality or those that depicted free LGBTQ+ love. In essence, I was looking for inspiration and hope in the medium that I love the most. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of romantic comedies (especially those released in the aughts) and just about any movie that essentially deals with love. Ask anyone who knows me. However, part of my coming-of-age experience revolved around: exploring all that life had to offer, questioning the politics of representation, and taking comfort in stories that offered me a safe space to introspect about my identity. I wanted narratives that resonated with me on a personal level—I wanted to see myself on-screen…and on Christmas. Love is a universal language, and it is something that we can all relate to. And while many of the streaming platforms have hidden gems, it tends to get repetitive. I mean, have you seen the Hallmark Christmas movie posters? I know you have. Over and over again, they present us with the same clichés of boy meets girl meets Christmas magic. We watch them, we enjoy them, and then we finish by giving them no more than 3 stars on Letterboxd.

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Aubrey Plaza and Kristen Stewart in Happiest Season.

Fast-forward to 2020. I found out that Clea DuVall was to co-write and direct a Lesbian Christmas-themed film for Hulu. I got so excited. DuVall, who has been working in the industry for many years, is a lesbian herself, and the film stars Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davies, Daniel Levy, AND Aubrey Plaza. The perfect cast, in my opinion. “But we already have Carol (2015),” a lot of my friends commented. “Sure” I would respond, but this wasn’t the same. And yes, Carol is a Christmas film, I can write a whole other essay on it. Happiest Season is a fun and cheesy comedy, the perfect choice when curating a Christmas Rom-Com Night. 

Filled with resurfacing exes, family drama, Daniel Levy’s delightful scene stealers, and of course, the main coming out story, the movie, in a nutshell, tells the story of Harper’s (Mackenzie Davis) and Abby’s (Kristen Stewart) journey, as they spend the holidays with Harper’s family. Abby plans on proposing on Christmas, but things go awry when Harper tells her that she isn’t out to her family. They both have to pretend they’re roommates for five days, and that puts Abby’s plans on hold. Everything escalates when Abby starts feeling neglected by Harper and her family. Despite everything, like most romantic comedies, Abby and Harper actually do end up together, engaged happily-ever-after. The film sparked a lot of controversies and had fans engaging in all sorts of discussions: From wanting Abby to end up with Harper’s ex, Riley (Aubrey Plaza) and criticizing the fact that most queer love stories always revolve around coming out to basically just wanting the couple to split at the end. Happiest Season is definitely not perfect, but it’s not like we expected it to be an Academy Award contender from the beginning. There’s always room for improvement, and I absolutely believe that DuVall’s work will help in our fight to get actual representation in holiday-themed films. When I say representation I mean actual narratives revolving around LGBTQ+ folks, not just same-sex couples dancing in the background of a 2-second wide shot. Whether you liked the movie or not, I believe it’s a good step towards expanding the Christmas rom-com formula. Imagine if we got queer seasonal rom-coms every single year? Fun, feel-good, all peaches and cream, predictable yet soothing and heartwarming type of films that will make me want to look forward to the holiday movie nights even more than it already does. The serotonin.

I still partake in the Christmas Rom-Com Nights (especially when there is a bottle of wine involved). This is something that I want to keep doing. After all, we deemed it a tradition. While I did not watch the movie with my mom, I still saw it with someone I love. To me, this film succeeds in little details. Like Abby exclaiming: “I get to go meet the people who made my favorite person,” which translates the rush of excitement you feel when you get to spend a holiday with your partner’s family or you’re meeting them for the first time. Or going from taking the family picture to actually being included in it. It’s a milestone when you go pretending that you and the person you love are just friends. Without justifying how shitty Harper’s behavior was—which is a whole other topic, you can in some measure relate to the protagonists.

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Mackenzie Davis and Kristen Stewart.

I’ve now seen the movie a total of three times, and I keep thinking about how I would’ve felt at 16 if I had access to a storyline like this. Growing up, I experienced many of the situations that were presented in the film. They’re all very personal, specific, and perhaps not quite the same. I was only a teenager, but they did happen, especially during the holidays. Years will pass by, and I’ll still find the film relatable. Not only because it made me reminisce about my adolescence and the ups and downs of being gay. But also I 100% like being very much in love during Christmas, and I 100% understand the feeling of being free to be myself with the person I’m with. Happiest Season made me laugh, cry, and complain—I mean, how did they not show the proposal?!? I spent 102 minutes waiting for Kristen Stewart to pop the question.

Watching this film reminded me of the importance of sharing these kinds of narratives. Whether you personally relate to them or not, there will always be someone who will. Also, I don’t know about you, but I do want to see happy endings. It doesn’t all have to be heartbreaks, tragedy, angst, or bury your gays. We can allow ourselves some joy. I’m confident that two women can have a happy ending both in fiction and in real life…especially those scenarios that include: Christmas lights, hot chocolate, gingerbread cookies, and coquito.

Nicole A. Watlington-Betancourt is an aspiring culture writer and film scholar from Puerto Rico. She also works as a sound designer and sound editor for film, television, and other media. Whenever she’s not writing, reading, talking or breathing film, you can find her trying new recipes and calling The Great British Bake Off as her healing balm. You can follow her on Twitter @wvtlington.

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