BY Rosanna McLaughlin in Opinion | 11 DEC 20

Clea Duvall's ‘The Happiest Season’ Is a Horror Show Just in Time for Christmas

The much-hyped festive blockbuster staring Kristen Stewart may be sold as heart-warming seasonal tale, but it presents as a painful watch, wrapped-up in outdated clichés of the queer experience

BY Rosanna McLaughlin in Opinion | 11 DEC 20

Half an hour into Happiest Season (2020), watching through my fingers and suppressing an urge to scream, I started to wonder if there had been a mistake. Directed by Clea DuVall and starring Kristen Stewart, the film has been billed as the first queer-centred festive release backed by a major Hollywood studio. Despite advertisements to the contrary, the film did not seem like a queer Christmas romantic comedy or a milestone in lesbian representation; instead, I found myself sitting through an emotional horror movie – a harrowing tale of assimilation, with a script more wooden than a coffin factory and a plot just as bleak.

Stewart plays Abby, an art PhD student forced back into the closet while spending Christmas with her girlfriend’s family. Presumably to make sense of why Abby would submit to such a soul-crushing ordeal, her character is an orphan with nowhere else to be. She also only has one friend, a gay man named John who stalks his Grindr dates by tracking their phones. Whether this is intended as a funny character trait, a ham-fisted device to explain him turning up out of the blue at the end (he tracks Abby’s phone too), or whether viewers are supposed to equate gay men who use sex apps with criminality, is but one of the film’s many worrisome mysteries.

The Happiest Season, 2020, film still. Courstey: Hulu

Abby’s taste in girlfriends is every bit as questionable as her taste in friends. Prior to Christmas she buys a ring and is planning to propose to Harper (played by Mackenzie Davis) after asking for her father’s permission. So far, so rainbow-milquetoast. Only there is a twist in the tale. As Harper drives Abby to meet the family for the first time, she reveals that they don’t actually know she’s gay – and that Abby will have to pretend to be straight for the duration of the holiday. Nothing spreads festive cheer like the sound of alarm bells ringing. Or the phones of therapists. Which, I imagine, have been ringing off the hook since Happiest Season’s release, as queer viewers find themselves reliving the self-esteem-annihilating experience of invisibilizing yourself in front of a partner’s family.

Low and behold, upon arrival Abby finds herself entering a hellscape of conservative values. Harper’s dad is a narcissistic patriarch running for political office and much of the stay involves keeping up appearances in front of potential donors and backers. At home, Harper transforms into daddy’s little straight girl, competes with her sisters for his attention and ditches Abby in order to stay out late with the ex-boyfriend her parents want her to get back together with. All the while Abby is made to sleep in the basement. Owing to the fact that she has been granted zero agency by the script writers, she is also maddeningly unable to muster the presence of mind to leave.

The Happiest Season, 2020, film still. Courstey: Hulu

There are many reasons people don’t come out, and fear of rejection can cause desperate behaviour. The problem with Harper’s character is not that she’s closeted but that viewers are given nothing to like. During one of Abby’s many periods of abandonment she meets Harper’s high school ex-girlfriend Riley, who tells a terrible tale of how Harper destroyed her school life by spreading a rumour that she was obsessed with her instead of admitting they were a couple. Add to this the lack of onscreen chemistry between Stewart and Davis, and the relationship viewers are meant to root for transforms into a poisoned chalice.

With laboured inevitability the crescendo finally arrives at the family Christmas Eve party. Watching Harper flirting with her ex-boyfriend (again), Abby temporarily comes to her senses and walks out. Sadly the reprieve does not last long. At the same party Harper is outed by her sister in front of her parents, who soon realize that the happiness of their family is more important than their adherence to social expectations. With the cat finally out of the bag Harper chases after Abby and convinces her to return. The film draws to a close by fast-forwarding to the following Christmas, when the family and Abby are sitting at a local cinema. Harper is wearing an engagement ring, but by now it’s much too late for this to constitute a happy ending. The sacrificial lesbian orphan has forfeited her wellbeing and agency to heal the family’s wounds. Joining their ranks seems more like an extension of her ordeal rather than its reward.

The Happiest Season, 2020, film still. Courstey: Hulu

Despite its shortcomings, Happiest Season has been widely praised by media outlets either unable or unwilling to differentiate between interesting or useful queer representation and any representation at all. ‘It’s delightfully conventional, all while being completely subversive because of the movie’s queer spin on the genre,’ claimed a review in Variety that also doubles up as an obituary for the concept of subversion. While Happiest Season makes abundantly clear the pitfalls of the conservative family model, it does nothing to decentre it and shows no capacity for imagining queer love beyond the yoke of heteronormativity. The message the story spreads is not so much a heart-warming seasonal tale of acceptance and togetherness as it is a festive nightmare. Merry Christmas, lesbians! Assimilation is your only option – and must be enacted no matter the personal toll.

Rosanna McLaughlin is a writer and editor. Her novel Sinkhole: Three Crimes is out with Montez Press.