by Madeline Jarvis
I went into this for a good time, damn it. OK and maybe too high of hopes or expectations. Is it really my fault, though, to have sought seasonally-appropriate levity and cuteness to help get thru this time of the year, especially this year, when I heard that a “gay holiday romcom” directed by Clea DuVall and featuring Kristen Stewart was forthcoming?
As I complained to a friend soon after watching, “Can’t someone just make a realistic, adult relationship between two queer women that isn’t frozen in some random time period, completely depressing, or solely about ~comingout~?”
Another queer friend who watched the movie with his partner, said it succinctly: “We were not expecting so much suffering.”
To be fair, most movies featuring LGBTQ stories, especially depictions of queer women and femmes, have historically shown us just that: suffering. So by comparison, yeah, HAPPIEST SEASON is a tip-toe of a step towards progress/representation. It’s just that I had been picturing something closer to But I’m a Cheerleader meets A Christmas Story meets that Jingle Bell Rock scene from Mean Girls, with a cast that might even reflect my own friends. Something stupid, but current, fun and with heart… an inclusive Christmas comedy classic?
There were some sweet moments; but then there were too many missed opportunities where other characters’ relationships could have been explored with real humor, care and depth. I would have liked to have seen KStew and Dan Levy in more scenes together, and more of Aubrey Plaza period (though Riley is too good for all of them). Instead the film revolves around Harper et al., and cliched jokes that are relied upon too heavily to work very well. I mean, it’s a fine movie I guess, but didn’t feel much like a comedy or romance or modern Christmas story to me. No, HAPPIEST SEASON is definitely more psychological horror that just so happens to be set in December over dull, drawn out dinner parties where grown white women become helpless children clamoring for their father’s attention again…
From the beginning Harper is shockingly terrible and controlling in the way she interacts with most everyone, especially her girlfriend. Even so, I couldn’t entirely hate her. Yes I identified immediately with Kristen Stewart as Abby, who needs a hug, a box of tissues and some mulled wine. The role I was groomed to play, however (like most of us maybe?), was that of Harper (Mackenzie Davis).
The car ride up to Harper’s parents’ house is reminiscent of the same scene from Jordan Peele’s horror/thriller/comedy/documentary (depending who you ask), GET OUT. After convincing her girlfriend to spend Christmas together and finally meet her family, Harper starts acting cagey. Here her first lie is revealed: everyone at home thinks she’s straight, and single. This more or less puts the kibosh on Abby’s plans to propose in front of everyone. You could basically stop watching the film right there, after Harper croons “I’ll tell them… I promise” to an emotionally exhausted Abby while pulled over on the side of the road, and get the gist.
In these scenes and throughout each film, both women are in the driver’s seat. Via the scenic route, HAPPIEST SEASON’s Harper and GET OUT’s Rose successfully lure their “orphaned” partners into quiet hostility. Both betray their trust along with the audiences’. One difference, of course, is that in HAPPIEST SEASON no one has to die.
Like the car ride, Harper’s family dynamics feel adapted somehow from GET OUT (which Peele once described as a documentary), but were not investigated with nearly the same weight, humor or thoughtfulness. Both families and their very homes bear a similar self-importance and anguish. We see sibling rivalry turned to contempt, and the effects of emotional neglect (Jane, Harper’s sister and the supposed comic relief, is profoundly sad while Peele’s Jeremy is terrifying).
It makes sense, then, that both films’ patriarchs share a knack for diplomacy. (While the plot revolves around her father’s election campaign HAPPIEST SEASON manages to be apolitical, though we can guess his slant.) Entertaining orators, these father figures speak from drafted and subconscious scripts they carefully select based on whichever will get their points across best, in turn, concealing their truest values. What they and their families don’t know is true connection requires shared vulnerability- trust. These things cannot be rehearsed but are taught and reinforced over lifetimes, from one generation to the next by ancestors passed, informed by each of our own performances and the way artists choose to portray them.
Racial tension and commodification of black bodies is also found in this film. All about the optics, Harper’s biracial niece and nephew, and brother-in-law, Eric, are paraded and tokenized by her parents. With few lines and little backstory for themselves, these characters of color end up acting out subtly racist tropes which are so deeply rooted in American entertainment. Before he is found with another woman, Eric’s function seems to be to dote on his wife and in-laws, and with a smile. He is the one to ensure the children behave and look their best as he accompanies them on piano to perform Silent Night for the predominantly white Christmas Party meets campaign fundraiser. What’s more is, throughout the film, Eric’s own family is never seen or mentioned, suggesting successful assimilation (or maybe he’s meant to be an orphan too?).
There are some things that you do to make people happy… like get married or live in silence or slip into stereotype or agree to spend a long weekend with your girlfriend’s WASPy family in her childhood home. Eric is the first to catch on to the relationship and recognize Abby’s discomfort. Not only is his marriage dead, he is, of course, well versed in the subconscious code-switching that happens in spaces where one is expected but never able to simply blend in. Eric can see Abby trying to be taken seriously.
Thankfully my own parents are alive and well, but growing up they somehow straddled the line between orphaned Abby’s (missing and missed) and Harper’s (never not there). When together I remember sitting in weighted silence – a well of unspoken sorrow. Days before watching HAPPIEST SEASON I had some difficult, long overdue conversations with each of my parents. We discussed, for the first time, things that happened twenty years ago. Twenty years of shared disquiet. “Parenting is– No one gives you a handbook,” at one point my Dad says as I watch him search for the right words. Of course this line is familiar, we’ve both heard it before in more than one movie.
This is why we need to expect more honesty from popular film and media, even the fluff romcom crap like this from streaming services. Sometimes we borrow words when we aren’t sure of what else there is to be said, or when we are afraid of our own not being enough.
In the last half hour of DuVall’s HAPPIEST SEASON we see Harper outed by her sister, whose rage boils over. KStew also dips. She’s done, finally, ready to leave. “Thank you,” I exhale. Someone who has proven they love her has shown up in real time to whisk her away from her own Sunken Place. Maybe this is where we will celebrate Abby’s real, living family… the one she made or is making, that is every bit as supportive and loving as what she seeks to escape. (It’s no secret within the LGBTQ community that “family” is, to say the least, a loaded term.) Maybe this film isn’t going to force her to settle for what everyone expects.
But no, not even this can be Abby’s moment because this is when Harper redeems herself. But she doesn’t seem to do it for herself or her partner- even this her family has a stronghold on.
“I’m gay,” Harper declares proudly, not long after publicly scoffing being outed as “a lesbian”. Unconvincing and clearly out of obligation, this grand finale doesn’t sit right. “Girl,” I sigh and want to say right back, “where have you been for the last hour and a half? You are as gay as you are straight – not at all. You will be, like me, coming out for the rest of your life.” The rest plays out as we expect. Conflict dissipates without being fully addressed. Everyone is “happy” -forgiven, forgiving, tidy – The end.
My HAPPIEST SEASON was actually the saddest tease. I know, though, especially as I get closer to thirty while quarantined in America, that these sorts of films (about spending your life hiding, or not yet being fully seen) are not made for anyone like me even though I almost always share the cast, director, and writers’ complexion.
Soon it will be 2021. Still, representation, labels and language matters. Is this really how the bi+ community continues to be seen (made invisible) by everyone, including ourselves? Is this really how we see the gender non-conforming, nonbinary, and trans+ communities, for that matter (not at all unless they’re entertaining cis people at dragshows)? Is it really so hard to capture a healthy, actually happy, adult bi/pansexual or trans+ experience in popular film? Is wanting a movie to exist that I could comfortably watch with both my chosen and childhood families so asinine???? Are us adult queer kids really incapable of feeling love or happiness, or giving a shit about Christmas, unless we submit to tired traditions (like marriage? LOL whoops)??
If Clea DuVall (who I forgot was the director about halfway thru viewing) couldn’t make something better, then who will and when? How many more white lesbian melodramas will my friends and I guilt ourselves into feeling grateful for, or identifying with, simply because they exist? How much longer will overwhelmingly white films be touted as “diverse” while in effect upholding white supremacist and cis-heterosexist standards? …Or am I being too harsh? Too impatient?
Can we do and expect better than what’s already been done?