'Happiest Season': Why Kristen Stewart's Abby and Aubrey Plaza's Riley would have been the better end-game
There is always that sinking heart feeling when the marketing doesn't match what is unveiled. 'Happiest Season' from its title, to its marketing as a light holiday fare with a heartwarming LGBTQ romance at its soft creamy center, was supposed to be the gay rom-com we've all been waiting for.
No trauma to deal with, just a whole lot of egg nog, harmless misunderstandings, and running around. Instead 'Happiest Season' unfolds as a tragedy that tries to dress, unsuccessfully may we add, as a comedy. It is a deeply moving film about that terrifying 'coming-out to the family' moment but a tragedy nonetheless. So its "happy ending" seems unearned. Instead of a rom-com, we got a highly triggering coming out story, which in part mirrors Clea Duvall, the director, and star Kristen Stewart's own life experiences around outing themselves.
It is meant to show that love conquers all, including fear. But by the time Mackenzie Davis' Harper finally confesses she is gay, she puts Kristen Stewart's Abby through so much trauma for her unlikeable family that, by the end of the film, you want Abby to leave her. You want her to stick to the decision of it being "too little, too late". Especially after you learn that she is pretty okay with throwing people under the bus to preserve her reputation and she has done it before.
There is one horrifying story-telling session when Riley, Harper's ex from high school, tells Abby that Harper outed her to the entire school when her straight friends found Riley's love notes in Harper's locker. Riley was also sweet enough not to show Harper's love letters to the entire school in retaliation and endured the bullying after being forcibly outed, on her own.
Abby is undergoing a version of this torture herself in the film as Harper kisses her in private and acts distant when she is around her family. The Caldwells are terrible people -- and that sort of familial pattern of making their daughters, Sloane and Harper, compete for their love can't disappear after one evening's worth of confrontations. And the fact that it does seems disingenuous. The ending, where the ambitious Ted and Tipper suddenly decide that Ted becoming mayor is less important than the happiness of their daughters is a bit delusionary. They also treat Jane as a glorified repairwoman and ignore her otherwise.
But the biggest problem is the central relationship between Harper and Abby. Harper's ugly, closeted behavior is pretty off-putting and nothing makes the viewer believe that Harper and Abby have the sort of enduring sexual or emotional chemistry to survive the holidays filled with emotional trauma and drama.
In contrast, the ones who unexpectedly do have chemistry are Abby and Riley. At one point Harper spots Riley and Abby walking about town, laughing and talking, and becomes jealous. She should be. Kristen Stewart's awkwardness as Abby and Aubrey Plaza's slight badass quality as Riley is a match made in heaven. And both rock their tailored jackets and plunging necklines like no others in the film. Their chemistry in the few scenes they have together is potent stuff, even though they never kiss and only slide next to each other for one Santa song. And you get the sense that Riley is attracted to Abby. If only Abby stopped feeling miserable about Harper for one sec and noticed that, this would have been a better film.
How excellent would it have been if Abby, Riley, and John went skipping off to Pittsburg leaving that terrible town, the terrible Caldwells, and the terrible Harper in their rearview mirror to go buy pet fishes? Speaking of which, the only other duo in the film with better chemistry than Abby and Riley is between Abby and her gay best friend, John. Abby and John interact and act as real friends do. But at no point do we see that comfort level between Harper and Abby -- which makes it mystifying when Abby finally forgives Harper and puts a ring on that. Ugh.
'Happiest Season' is streaming on Hulu from November 25 onwards.