The Streaming Experience: Hulu’s ‘Happiest Season’ on Canada’s Amazon Prime
‘Happiest Season‘ is just the kind of Christmas candy that I’ve been looking forward to for years. The Hulu original (Amazon Prime in Canada) has a starry cast of lovely pros, such as Kristen Stewart, Mary Steenburgen and Victor Garber lined up to deliver, and a modern non-hetero stance that it consciously and determinedly decided to take, and it’s about time we got some representation. The Christmas movie is purposeful, as put forth by actor-turned-director and writer Clea DuVall (“The Intervention“; “Argo“), with an assist on the story by fellow ‘Veep‘ co-star, Mary Holland (who plays sister Jane in the tale), in its attempt to change the vantage point on the classic holiday romp set-up, by shifting the angle and adding a sexuality layer of conflict that, although we’ve seen an essence of this before (I must say am curious and stupidly hopeful about the upcoming ‘The Christmas Setup‘), a homosexual coupling has not been featured at the center of a holiday treat before, at least to my knowledge. It is a galant attempt, and I give the duo plenty of positive chops for taking the stance,. It succeeds, in that made-for-holiday season television kinda way, by being almost obstinately predictable and straightforwardly traditional. It doesn’t challenge nor push too hard to be anything more than what its heteronormative counterparts present, but because of that typical manner of delivery, ‘Happiest Season‘ fails, falling head-first into a hole of stomach-churning disappointment, making me sad that this is what the film was made to be on purpose, and not by mistake. It detaches from my hopeful happy place, specifically because it lacks the desire to to be anything but formulamatic and therefore, completely disheartening.
The holiday film aims to be a pleasant Hallmark equivalent, but with a lesbian twist that is somehow supposed to enlighten the masses, while not challenging them to step too far off the snowy upper-class white suburban privileged path. It definitely doesn’t shy away from itself, placing ‘true love’ at its core, standing up against the confines and the unreasonable expectations of parents who don’t get it, while also laying out a lesbian coming-out tale within the problematic dynamics that live and breath within this ‘traditional’ made-for-TV family. Abby, played to the max by a focused Kristen Stewart (The Twilight Saga film series, “The Clouds of Sils Maria“) is a woman in love, deeply and thoroughly, with Mackenzie Davis’ Harper. Their relationship is seemingly perfect , at least in the eyes of Abby’s friend, John, played by the always appealing Dan Levy, creator and star of the infinitely more refined ‘Schitt’s Creek‘. But in a fit of overzealous Christmas cheer, Harper invites the parentless Abby home for Christmas with her family. Abby agrees, reluctantly at first, but full heartedly after sleeping on the idea, as Christmas has a delicate and painful edge to it ever since the death of her parents. Abby is nervous about dancing on that very edge, but has a surprise for Harper, one that comes in a jewelry box, but means a great deal more. The main problem is, unbeknownst to Abby, Harper has a surprise as well, but one that isn’t so festive or marital. It seems she has not been exactly truthful about her coming-out story to Abby. In fact, there is no coming-out story, because Harper, played erratically by Davis (HBO’s ‘Station Eleven‘) has never told her parents that she is gay, and has decided to wait until they are halfway to her parents’ overly perfect house before letting Abby in on the bitter truth.
So, as in almost every gay coming-out movie I can remember (or at least that is how it feels), gay characters, like Abby, are always being asked to ‘play straight’ for the time being, however long that will be, and pretend to be the proverbial ‘roommate’, a dramatic concept that makes my head fume and my stomach hurt. How many times am I going to have to watch this play out, in almost the same way? It’s toxic, I must say, and says more about their relationship than this movie ever pretends to understand. Abby’s decision, although well navigated by Stewart, makes me wish that some other plot point could be found in all this holiday madness, and that Harper wasn’t written out to be such a mind-swapping scaredy cat ass. Steenburgen (“Miss Firecracker“; “The Help“) and Garber (‘Legends of Tomorrow‘; “Titanic“) play their paternal roles dutifully, although the two are still just cut-out characters from an old movie that I don’t ever want to watch again. The two actors deserve better, as both parents seem to live in an inauthentic realm of interaction and understanding, never finding the language or the dimension to equate themselves to better parental figures, like the couple at the head of “The Family Stone” or as the core of “Home for the Holidays“, two infinitely finer and more sophisticated ventures about family and conflict. Maybe it is the reality of the time we still live in, but ‘Happiest Season‘ feels dated while trying to be revolutionary, forward-thinking while feeling insulting and out of touch. You can disagree with me on that, but my stomach can’t be soothed by any type of explaining or pacifying on the concept.
All of the ingredients inside ‘Happiest Season‘ makes sense, but the formulations fail to find a pathway out of the classic inauthentic traits of this particular brand of sugary sweet holiday confections. So many of these types of films are rolled out, one after the other, as if from a factory, in the month of December by Lifetime and The Hallmark Channel, but this one needs to be something different and/or deeper to make it feel truly equal or advancing. In what should have been at least a bit ground breaking, ‘Happiest Season‘ becomes something as shortsightedly similar as the rest of the holiday pack. The forgettable awkward dialogue and clumsy characterizations kept me at arms length from the human connections, leaving me sad that I got so excited for something that turned out to be so unremarkable. The only true moment of authenticity and true emotionality comes from the well spoken mouth of Levy, playing the almost stereotypical gay sidekick character named John, a name that seems almost insultingly simple for the difficult task he was given. John finds himself out in front as everything crumbles around inside, beautifully explaining to Abby the complicated wide spectrum that exists when it comes to a person’s coming-out experience. His tone and presence finds the one slice of clarity needed in this sad truth, and through this very touching exchange, a real emotional moment of connection is created, for us, and for them. Left up to him, and maybe to the formidable Aubrey Plaza (‘Parks and Recreation‘) as the old jilted girlfriend Riley (who brings more sexual tension and fire to this film than almost anyone else), the movie does manage to find some much needed grace and tender connection inside some pretty overly self-aware teaching moments. Praise be.
The stone cold hostile sister Sloane, played by Alison Brie (‘Glow‘; “The Post“), her ethnically diverse family, and Holland as the hyper-dutiful forgotten sister, Jane, play our their assigned positions as clearly as if laid out on a Hallmark map to television success. Really off is presented as quirky and unique, with just too many basically cringe worthy configurations to mention in ‘Happiest Season‘, particularly when trying to tackle the inner conflict of a coming-out story,. This unimaginative, cookie-cutter holiday film seems to be telling us we should be the happiest of people just because it has been made with so many of the central characters being gay, and not entirely stereotypical. Maybe I should rejoice for this very fact, but I can’t get past that fact that it fails to be authentic, other than being an honestly traditional holiday romp that is as forgettable as the other one scheduled on Lifetime. Maybe I was asking for too much art and thoughtfulness from a genre that is overflowing with similar structured silly sweetness, but I just can’t help myself. This is supposed to be a feel-good movie with a feel-good ending, but I just didn’t buy into it. I want more, without the hard-to-comprehend sugar hangover at the end. Fingers crossed for the next Christmas Setup.