Happiest Season

Review by Rich Cline | 4/5

Happiest Season
dir Clea DuVall
scr Clea DuVall, Mary Holland
prd Isaac Klausner, Marty Bowen
with Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Alison Brie, Mary Holland, Mary Steenburgen, Victor Garber, Dan Levy, Aubrey Plaza, Ana Gasteyer, Jake McDorman, Burl Moseley, Sarayu Blue
release US/UK 25.Nov.20
20/US Sony 1h42

brie levy plaza

Is it streaming?

stewart and davis
With this holiday rom-com, actor-turned-filmmaker Clea DuVall stirs just enough edgy humour in amongst the slapstick and sweetness. So as farcical as things get, the movie remains underpinned by wry observational humour and real-life issues from parental expectations to unthinking homophobia. And even with the requirements of the genre's formula, there are some deeper things going on here that elevate this film far above the usual fluff.
After a year together, Harper (Davis) invites her girlfriend Abby (Stewart) home for Christmas. Abby wants to mark the occasion by proposing marriage, which her best pal John (Levy) thinks is far too traditional. Then Harper confesses that she isn't out to her conservative parents (Steenburgen and Garber), and she asks Abby to pretend to be her straight roommate. Meanwhile, Harper's parents are still trying to fix her up with local boy Connor (McDorman), and then her ex Riley (Plaza) turns up. So maintaining this fiction is going to be difficult over five days.
The film is packed with witty gags that are nicely underplayed, helping to ground the story in squirmingly recognisable reality. This high-achieving family is a bundle of quirks and micro-aggressions, with offbeat wrinkles in their inter-relationships. The dynamic between Harper and her sisters (Brie and Holland) is knowingly well-played. And in phone conversations John offers salient running commentary, offering an outside perspective while knowingly digging into key social issues.

Performance are refreshingly naturalistic, even when playing heightened comedic types. Everyone in the cast is engaging, and each adds layers of interest that bring characters to life. Stewart and Davis are superb in the central roles, which have some nicely unexpected angles to them. As the interloper, Stewart has more to do, especially as she begins to worry about being sidelined, then bonds with the excellent Plaza's fellow outsider Riley. Steenburgen and Garber are terrific as always, while Levy and Holland (as the over-eager little sister) are the prize scene-stealers.

Amid the physical silliness and warmly engaging humour, there are several low-key moments of darkly emotional drama. Indeed, there are far more serious ripples than expected, even with the inclusion of the usual gags leading to a full-on action-comedy climax. But the script never loses track of its more important elements, including an informed take on how we lie to each other in seemingly innocuous ways that can't help but cause problems. And of course the fact that some people feel that they can't live as themselves is a powerful theme all its own.

cert 12 themes, language 15.Nov.20

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© 2020 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall