there’s no arguing that Christmas is the Happiest Season.
Traditionally, it’s when families reunite to be together, exchange gifts, enjoy a meal and share the love.
It’s a joyous time that sometimes involves engagement rings and marriage proposals.
That is to say with the possible exception Christmas 2020 when we will all be surreally separated from the people we love.
The irony this year is that not being with the people we love is an expression of how much we really do love them and care about their health and safety.
This year Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas” might replace “White Christmas” as the song that best described our collective spirits.
Fortunately, production of Happiest Season (2020) was wrapping just around the time that the pandemic was becoming a dark reality, It’s a last glimpse of life the way it was before everything took an ugly turn.
It reflects happier times, but not a perfect world.
Harper (Mackenzie Davis), a successful young journalist invites her art student girlfriend Abby (Kristen Stewart) to the annual family festivities.
What she doesn’t know is that Abby, who is meeting Harper’s family for the first time, plans to propose to her on Christmas. What Abby doesn’t know is that Harper’s family doesn’t know their daughter is gay.
Happiest Season is a contemporary romantic holiday movie. And it wastes no time establishing that.
As with most good movie comedies, the stage is set in the opening reel. In this case, it is establishes a storyline brimming with possibilities.
Director Clea Duvall co-wrote the screenplay with Mary Holland. The story takes place in Pittsburgh, PA, as evidenced in the opening shot – a picture postcard of the city from the famous Duquesne Incline atop Mount Washington.
Pittsburgh references abound. There are mentions of Carnegie Mellon University, where Abby is studying art history and The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where Harper works as an investigative reporter.
Anyone familiar with the city will instantly recognize the many locations (Millvale, Lawrenceville, etc.), all richly photographed.
The technical credits here are stellar. Happiest Season sparkles with light and color—candy cane eye candy.
The story is entertaining. The characters all have some degree of complexity which makes the plot interesting and unpredictable.
You have a general sense of where everything seems to be going, though the twists and turns make it a bumpy ride.
The casting and performances are first rate. Kristen Stewart and MacKenzie Davis are wonderful together.
Mary Steenbergen is terrific as the Harper matriarch, a control freak of a wife and mother intent on orchestrating every minute detail of the festivities.
At stake is her husband’s political future and his hopes of being elected mayor, making the public perception of perfect family harmony all-important.
Alison Brie and Mary Holland play Harper’s sisters who are envious of Harper’s status as daddy’s favorite.
The life-long rivalry sets up an undercurrent of conflict and bickering that threatens to blow the lid on their seemingly idyllic world.
Dan Levy’s role as Abby’s gay friend is a great addition to the cast, though his character John is the same character he plays on the award-winning Canadian TV series Schitt’s Creek.
Granted, it’s a funny character. But it’s the same character, with same gestures, facial expressions and line delivery. Diehard Schitt’s Creek fans won’t mind.
Mary Holland’s Jane, Harper’s off-beat, awkward sister seems to be channeling the comedy chops of Isla Fisher. It’s close, but Isla would have been more fun to watch.
Overall, Happiest Season is solidly directed, a nice mix of physical comedy and some genuinely funny lines.
One glaring exception is a scene that takes place at a shopping mall when Abby is wrongly suspected of shoplifting.
What follows is an noir-style interrogation scene by mall security in a darkened room that looks like it was taken from another movie. It is a noticeably inconsistent scene that interrupts what was otherwise an evenly flowing narrative.
On a positive note, it’s the only glaring misstep in the film.
Happiest Season is being released at a time when we need it most. We could all use some cheering up this holiday season.
The premise of a holiday get-together going wrong isn’t a new one. What’s new here is the updating of the theme with characters that reflect the times and expand the theme.
It’s heartwarming and fun, striking just the right balance between serious choices that the characters have to make and the craziness that can happen in the process of getting there.
It’s about family secrets and sibling rivalry. It’s about appearances and underlying truth. And, in the end, it’s about the love that can save our souls and connect us all.
'Happiest Season' is on Hulu.