Kristen Stewart got famous by starring in the massively popular, mostly terrible Twilight movies, then proved she could actually act in a series of smaller, more idiosyncratic projects that took advantage of her off-centre charisma. It’s been surprisingly fun, over the past year, watching her fidget back into big-studio productions, enlivening dumb action movies (Charlie’s Angels), sci-fi horror (Underwater), and now cosy holiday romcoms with Happiest Season – which itself wants to un-Hallmark its genre with the kind of sweet, grounded gay love story still rare in mainstream movies.
Stewart plays Abby, who after a year of dating Harper (Mackenzie Davis) is certain she’s found the love of her life. When Harper invites Abby to come home with her for Christmas, Abby plans to propose – until she finds out that Harper hasn’t actually yet come out to her picture-perfect, upper-middle-class family. Abby suddenly has to confront a different side to her girlfriend, who wants to support her dad (Victor Garber) in his mayoral campaign and her mom (Mary Steenburgen) in her quest to convey a wholesome, traditional image on Instagram.
At times, Happiest Season resembles a lower-key version of 1996 comedy The Birdcage – a farce about keeping up appearances and delaying self-acceptance. Director Clea Duvall doesn’t have a strong eye for slapstick. The occasional physical comedy is staged tenuously and not especially well. She’s better at orchestrating bits of family chatter, as Harper snipes at her chilly sister Sloane (Alison Brie) and the whole family conspires to ignore poor third sibling Jane (Mary Holland, who also co-wrote the script with Duvall, and makes overlooked-grown-kid neediness oddly winning). Some of this material feels cartoonish, but Stewart has a grounding effect. Even Abby’s indifference to Christmas, the kind of trait that’s usually a vehicle for cutesy cynicism, is realistically drawn. Stewart is especially good in her scenes opposite Aubrey Plaza as Harper’s secret ex, whose lack of obvious people-pleasing may be more on Abby’s wavelength.
This threatens to become a problem not just for Abby but for the movie, which doesn’t take full advantage of Davis’ strengths. As Harper, Davis has to play against the prickly frankness that’s made her so compelling in other roles, attempting to flesh out a character who’s almost always in the wrong. Contrary to the film’s romantic-comedy aspirations, it’s more interesting as a study of family dynamics – though this family’s specific concerns sometimes make the film feel as if it’s taking place in the ’90s, despite the frequent Insta references. There’s a constant tension between the movie’s desire to embrace cliches and to deepen them: Duvall and Holland give their hero a stereotypical, quippy, gay sidekick (Dan Levy, who occasionally appears to be searching his surroundings for better jokes), but also gives Levy a heartfelt, climactic mini-monologue. The movie is generous to a fault, affectionate toward its characters and also overcrowded with them. “This is great content,” Steenburgen’s character says at one point, and sometimes that feels true of Happiest Season itself: great as comfort-food viewing, but only pretty good as a feature film.
- Director: Clea Duvall
- Starring: Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Aubrey Plaza
- Release date: November 26 (Digital)