They say the first attempt at anything never turns out right, an adage that applies to crepes, riding bikes, and now, apparently seasonal LGBTQAI+ films. As the first lesbian holiday rom-com, Hulu's The Happiest Season fits this cliche to a T -- as well as that of pretty much every other holiday romance flick.
A Christmas twist on the classic coming-out story, the movie tells the tale of Abby (Kristen Stewart), and Harper, (Mackenzie Davis) who have been dating for about a year and are about to spend their first Christmas with Harper's family. The only problem? Despite telling Abby that she came out to her parents months earlier, Harper is still firmly in the closet, meaning the couple now needs to charade as roommates to avoid causing conflict during their holiday visit. Amid the tension of sleeping in separate bedrooms and sneaking around, Abby bonds with Riley (Aubrey Plaza), Harper's ex-girlfriend from high school over the shared experience of forcibly hiding their respective relationships.
Despite passive-aggressive texts and uncomfortable interactions, which Abby attempts to navigate through phone calls to her friend John, (Dan Levy) a trope that NPR compared to Daniel Kaluuya's relationship with Lil Rel in Get Out, the awkwardness finally comes to a head when Harper's older sister Sloane, (Alison Brie) catches Harper and Abby kissing. After a knock-down-drag-out sister fight, featuring weaponized decorative brooms and hard candy, Sloane outs Harper in front of her family and the prissy guests at her parent's Christmas Eve party. At first, Harper denies the claims, which angers Abby, yet in the end, she finally comes out to her family, who quickly learns to accept their daughter and her relationship.
The Happiest Season is undeniably monumental, a major first for queer women who are excited to see relationships that mirror their own on screen on their own terms, in a film written by and staring largely LGBTQAI+ people. Yet a trailblazing movie does not necessarily equate to a good movie.
The first major issue? Abby and Harper are not a good match. Between explicitly lying about her family situation, confessing she's still closeted midway through the drive to her parent's house, spending quite a bit of time with her ex-boyfriend, and consistently dragging Abby to places where she's clearly uncomfortable, like the holiday neighborhood tour and the sports bar, Harper is an inconsiderate partner. Furthermore, the duo's interactions seeming a bit off, as if they lack the spark between leading couples in successful romance films. If you too found yourself yelling "DUMP HER!" at your TV during their regular spats, you're far from alone.
Meanwhile, Abby and Riley's interactions are full of chemistry, their sardonic wit and sarcasm, reminiscent of Stewart and Plaza's real life personalities, mesh perfectly, leaving audiences, and even Plaza herself almost disappointed at our protagonists' happy ending.
"I hope that people walk away from the movie and they're disappointed that Kristen Stewart didn't end up with my character, and they like riot in the streets about it," Plaza told FabTV "Cause, for me it's a competition, acting is a competition, and I just want to win and so I want people to walk away and go 'man she should've been with Riley.'"
You know a film is questionable when even one of the lead actors has qualms about the ending. Mediocre casting aside, the film has also garnered flack for being yet another coming-out movie, a premise that has saturated LGBTQAI+ media for years. "Gay people, myself included, likely rolled their eyes at the film's premise," wrote USA Today's David Oliver of the picture. "Another coming out movie? Yes, it's a big deal that movies like 'Happiest Season' and 'Love, Simon' exist. Yes, LGBTQ+ people don't see themselves onscreen nearly as much as straight counterparts. But that doesn't mean we only deserve 'coming out' movies."
As I watched the film for myself, I agreed with Oliver's sentiments. Although I was excited to see a lesbian couple in love -- er, well, badly pretending to be -- on screen, I wondered why, exactly, The Happiest Season couldn't simply be a cheesy holiday romance story between two women. This year, gay men saw representation in Hallmark's The Christmas House, where the couple in question found support and acceptance from both of their families throughout the film. Why couldn't women in same-sex relationships have an equally complex story featuring a healthy lesbian relationship, one that's not marred by lack of trust, anger, and lies? Although I'm still frustrated with Abby and Harper's toxic relationship, nervous about the messages it may send to young, lesbian viewers, learning that the script was inspired by writer Clea DuVall's own coming out story helped sway my opinion on the film's use of the plot point.
"I drew a lot on the discomfort that comes out of pretending to be someone's friend when you know you have a much deeper relationship than that," DuVall told USA Today about her choice to feature the theme of acceptance in her holiday film. "Because I thought it's very relatable for a lot of LGBTQ+ people. Going home with your partner's family, whether people know you're together or not, is always a very specific kind of experience."
And she has a point. The coming out story has become an often-critiqued cliche plot element in LGBTQAI+ cinema, however these types of stories are still incredibly necessary, even for the hundredth time. In 2020, many families still shun their children for simply coming out, a type of heartbreaking rejection that experts have connected to homelessness and mental health struggles. Examples of families in film and television coming around to accept their children with love and kindness, especially after seeing indicators that they may be rejected, like Harper's family disparagingly referencing lesbianism as a "lifestyle choice" when discussing Riley, can spark a multitude of emotions, be it a heartwarming reminder of one's supportive family or a beacon of hope for those struggling with their relatives. As Stewart, who is bisexual, told British Glamour, "if this helps anyone who's unaware or aware of the fact that sometimes it's hard to say who you are around every group of people, that makes me tres happy."
While these stories are, as Stewart implies, very beneficial to some, the LGBTQAI+ experience does not stop at coming out. From The Happiest Season, to Call Me By Your Name, to But I'm A Cheerleader, to Moonlight, there are already several films centered around confessing one's sexuality, with Vanity Fair's Richard Lawson even compiling a list of LGBTQAI+ films about other elements of the queer experience. Although the film is a cheesy look at one lesbian holiday story, an exciting departure from the hundreds of seasonal moves encompassed by straight, white couples holding Christmas-y trinkets outside of a barn (looking at you, Hallmark), filmmakers should look to explore other facets of LGBTQAI+ life, wrapped up in a holiday bow going forward.
But fact that I can even write that sentence is an exciting symbol of progress. While we still have ways to go in terms of diversifying the types of narratives that appear on screen, namely, featuring the experiences of LGBTQAI+ BIPOC and transgender folks on their terms, the fact that The Happiest Season is a lesbian love story created by a team of largely non-hetero people on a major streaming platform represents how far we've come since the world saw its first openly gay sitcom character back in 1971.
Now, don't get me wrong, the flick is certifiably mediocre, comparable to any Hallmark Christmas movie. With dislikable characters, a grossly mismatched couple, and a saccharine ending, it's par for the course in a very cheesy genre. But to me, that's not the point. With a record-smashing release, The Happiest Season will likely pave the way for more comprehensive seasonal LGBTQAI+ stories in the coming years, hopefully starting a much-needed tradition of movies that make young women who like women feel seen and validated during the winter holidays. And that's what makes it worth the watch.