SPOILER ALERT: This piece contains spoilers for the entirety of Hulu’s “Happiest Season.” Proceed with caution, etc.
Even if you only watched the opening credits of “Happiest Season,” you’d understand how hard the movie works to establish itself as a Christmas movie that both defies tradition and snuggles right up to it. To the tune of the holliest, jolliest song available, illustrations of Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis) meeting, dating and falling in love unfold across the screen like pages of a picture book. They laugh over wine; they buy each other presents; they move in together; they settle down and into a cozy domesticity right in time for the holidays to mess it all up. It’s the kind of love story that rom-coms have shown countless times before, except this time, director Clea Duvall centers a lesbian couple that will get tested in a very different way than their straight predecessors ever would.
But there’s something else about the opening credits that hints at another deviation from the norm — one that ends up making parts of the the movie work in a way its central love story never entirely does. As we watch Abby and Harper become more enmeshed in each other’s lives, we also see more of Abby’s best friend John (Daniel Levy) making room for Harper in their lives. In just a couple flashes of dinner parties and parlor games in which John is a prominent fixture, we see how Abby and Harper’s relationship doesn’t exist on an island, but within a queer community of friends.
Abby leaning on John becomes a crucial dynamic for “Happiest Season” as she gets more and more overwhelmed with playing pretend at Harper’s nightmare Stepford family home. John’s not always the most helpful — especially while shopping for fish to replace the ones he accidentally lets die in his care (long story) — but he’s always there, ready and willing to hear Abby out. And in Levy’s capable hands, John is also one of the only characters who gets to be both very funny and a grounding emotional anchor; his comic timing is as sharp as his pivotal speech, about what it means and takes to come out of the closet, is profound.
For as good as Levy and Stewart are together, it’s honestly kind of sad how refreshing it feels to watch Abby call John, another gay person who can understand her specifically gay problem, in these moments of crisis. Queer friendships only tend to get significant screen-time in movies or shows that almost entirely focus on queer people (see: “The L Word,” “Queer as Folk,” “Tales of the City”). Otherwise, queer characters have been typically stranded in otherwise straight friend groups, dishing out snarky advice for heterosexual relationship issues. But “Happiest Season” has to bridge two distinct worlds: Abby and Harper’s happy gay life together in Pittsburgh and Harper’s oblivious conservative homestead in the suburbs. It makes perfect sense that Abby would lean on her best friend for support, and that her best friend would be someone who intimately understands what she’s going through — rather than, for instance, a straight ally who couldn’t do much more than sympathetically nod along. (It makes less sense that Harper wouldn’t also have someone like that to turn to at her own personal crossroads; in fact, it might have made her character feel a whole lot more fleshed out if she did.)
John, though, isn’t the only queer friend who ends up buoying “Happiest Season” when it threatens to get too stuck in the quicksand of Harper’s unhappiness. One of the movie’s best and most interesting choices is not only to bring in Harper’s ex Riley (Aubrey Plaza), but to make her another support system for Abby. Having been Harper’s secret high school girlfriend, she understands all too well what it feels like to be brushed off by Harper when she gets too scared to handle her own feelings. So it’s Riley, not Harper, who notices how uncomfortable Abby is at a fancy Christmas party and takes a moment to ask if she’s okay. It’s Riley who clocks Abby’s rising panic in the face of having to buy a present for the family’s White Elephant game (a sociopathic tradition that honestly should’ve tipped Abby off about these people from the start), offers to help, and brings her to a gay bar for an extremely necessary beer or three. That scene, in which Abby and Riley breathe a sigh of relief at not having to perform straightness for a whole hour, ends up being one of the movie’s best. Neither articulates why they’re so at ease in this neon-tinged haven of cheap beer and drag queens, but they don’t have to. As Riley could tell from looking at Abby from across the room, it’s just obvious this is the kind of casually queer comfort that she needs.
Whether you’ve seen the movie or not, this is maybe also the moment when you start to wonder, “should Abby have just ended up with Riley instead of the girlfriend that abandoned all pretense of being a supportive partner the minute it became too scary?” Given the comparatively little work “Happiest Season” does to make us understand Harper as a person outside her fear, and how good Plaza and Stewart are as a pair, that’s an extremely valid question. No matter where you land on it, though, that thought comes from recognizing their easy familiarity for what it is. Riley and Abby clearly understand each other on an intrinsic level that most any queer person who’s found refuge in another queer person, especially when floating adrift in a sea of heterosexuality, knows all too well.
“Happiest Season” eventually gives Abby and Harper a picture perfect ending, but it’s Abby’s relationships with Riley and John that nonetheless end up stealing the show. By the time Harper realizes how cruel she’s been to herself and her girlfriend both, Abby’s already gotten the kind of support she needs from Riley and John, two queer people who have spent years honing their radar for gay stress and don’t need Abby to beg for support before they give it. Even if “Happiest Season” doesn’t quite stick the landing with its main couple, it at least knows exactly what to do with its queer friendships, in all their complex nuance.
“Happiest Season” is now available to stream on Hulu.
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