I have never felt at peace with Christmas. As someone with only one family member, the idea of coming together with your extended family during the ~Holiday Season~ always felt alien to me. The marketing around it—”Gifts For Him, Gifts For Her”—is deeply rooted in heteronormative values, so the more I grew into my queer self, the less it felt welcoming to me. As a queer person raised in an unconventional family home, Christmas ads—which always featured a traditional nuclear family—felt like a total slap in the face. And that feeling was no more apparent than whenever I watched a Christmas movie.
The overarching narrative of the classic Christmas rom-com is simple: boy meets girl, boy wants girl to meet the parents, hilarity ensues, conflict arises, love and the gift of giving wins. Or, girl meets boy, girl struggles with the idea of dating or the meaning of Christmas, girl falls in love with boy, girl falls in love with Christmas. It’s a true and tried formula seen in the likes of Love Actually, The Holiday, The Family Stone, Four Christmases, you name it, it has it. No matter who stars in it or when it first released, one thing has always felt factual: these films were never meant for us.
The only Christmas flick I’ve ever really enjoyed is Tokyo Godfathers, an animated film by the late auteur Satoshi Kon about three rejects from society—a trans woman, a runaway teen and a homeless man with a drinking problem—who come across a stranded baby left in a garbage dump and band together to find its mother. The film explores the brutality of modern Tokyo and its underbelly of street crime, political corruption, homophobia and classism, and through at times whimsical and other times gritty adventures, illustrates their feeling of being othered and united with other outsiders, all things that felt extremely relatable as a queer person. But, bar Tokyo Godfathers, I really felt like, maybe, Christmas just wasn’t It.
Cut to Happiest Season, a new Christmas rom-com romp by VEEP stars Clea DuVall and Mary Holland. On the surface, it’s an endearingly tacky Christmas movie about meeting your partner’s family for the first time, overcoming secrets and how love will always prevail, and with an incredibly funny cast to boot, but for queer people, it’s a lot more than that. It’s some bloody honest to god representation in a genre that’s given us nothing. The film’s lead Kirsten Stewart told The New York Times she wanted it to feel like “two women in love” who just so happen to star in a Christmas movie, and that’s kinda what this is. Only, Happiest Season is a conventional Christmas movie about a universal gay experience: coming out.
Spoiler warning for Happiest Season
The film follows out lesbian Kristen Stewart as Abby, an art historian studying her PHD, whose girlfriend, Pittsburgh Daily reporter Harper, played by Mackenzie Davis, invites her to meet her family during the Christmas break. This is a big deal to Abby, she tragically lost her parents when she was 19 and has spent every Christmas since alone. So, naturally, she’s reluctant at first but decides to go and secretly plans to get Harper’s father’s permission and propose to her. But, on the way there, she’s hit with a sad reality check that queer people in relationships have been met with since the beginning of time: Harper isn’t out to her family and she wants their relationship to be a secret. Meaning, Abby has to pretend to not be herself.
What follows is a feel-good flick that casts a shadow of relatable queer trauma. Abby meets Harper’s colourful family, from her eldest and competitive sister, Sloane, played by Alison Brie, who recently quit her law firm to design her own lifestyle products for Goop, to Tipper, Harper’s overly affectionate and overbearing mother taking photos of their perfect family for the Instagram account to their father’s campaign to run for mayor. But, while meeting them all, she is reminded that she isn’t able to be herself. To them, she’s not Harper’s girlfriend but her orphan “roommate.” Harper spends the week in her childhood home, while Abby stays downstairs in her sister’s old room in the basement. In a symbolic twist of the knife, when the family takes a big Christmas photo, Abby isn’t in it but is taking the photo.
Since the moment they arrive back at Harper’s family home, Harper acts differently. Straight friends that I watched the film with couldn’t look past how mean Harper was. To me, it felt quite normal. Harper’s emotional abuse, isolation and defensiveness were all patterns of behaviour from someone who was still in the closet and afraid of what their real identity would take from their pre-out life.
Later, Abby meets Riley (Aubrey Plaza), Harper’s ex-girlfriend who she secretly dated in high school and then outed as gay—and an alleged stalker—when someone confronted her about love letters in her locker. At a campaign fundraiser, Abby steps outside to call her best friend, John—played by the marvellous and comically best Dan Levy—about her situation and how she feels suffocated by not being able to be who she is. Moments later, Riley appears from the shadows and cagley admits, “I can relate.” Abby, afraid of outing Harper, pretends to act like she doesn’t know what Riley is talking about.
That fear of being your true self and even confiding in someone, and playing that cat and mouse game of finding fellow in-the-closet queers hit hard at home. Back in high school, there were boys I’d catch looks at and who acted bi-curious and flirtatious, but I was too afraid to address it or engage. “What if it was a trap to call me out and bully me?” I’d think. “They’re not gay, they’re just acting like it because they think it’s funny in a shock humour kinda way.”
After days being treated horribly by Harper, Abby prepares to leave the family’s home. Harper, continuing to maintain a front that she’s the perfect, straight career-achieving daughter in the family, refuses to show she cares about Abby’s wellbeing outside of the corners of the basement room that Abby sleeps in. Then, on the fateful White Elephant—their family’s big, extravagant version of Secret Santa—Abby sees her playfully bantering with Harper’s high school sweetheart, Liam, and walks over to her, “Harper, it’s over. I’m done.” As she walks away, Harper, afraid of showing her true self, tries to hold in her tears but can’t hide her true feelings. The two eventually talk it out, not before Sloane witnesses the two makeup and goes upstairs to tell the rest of the family—where Harper continues to hide Abby and her true self, “that’s not true, I’m not a lesbian.”
Abby leaves, when we’re met with the moment that truly made me think, “fuck, maybe Christmas movies are for me?” John chases after her, where they go for a walk and talk about their own coming out experiences. Abby reveals that when she came out, her parents welcomed her with open arms. John confesses that when he came out, his dad kicked him out and didn’t speak to him for 13 years. It’s a harsh reminder that this universal queer experience of coming out hits everyone differently, and that not everyone is met with a nurturing and loving reaction from their loved ones. Here, Abby is reminded why Harper has been acting so estranged and coy this week: “if I tell them the truth, I lose my parents, but if I don’t, I lose you,” Harper says when the pair first makeup downstairs, ten minutes before this realisation.
Ofc, because this is a Christmas rom-com, there is a happy ending to Abby and Harper’s closeted couple woes in Happiest Season that does feel a bit unrealistic and fantastically ideal. Harper confesses to her parents that she is a lesbian and she is in a long-term relationship with Abby, their parents and sisters welcome them and we cut to one year later, where Abby is treated as a part of the family. She’s no longer taking the photos but is right bang in the middle of it, seen in a loving embrace with her out and proud girlfriend. In any other Christmas movie or rom-com, this would be an obvious moment that wraps everything up in a red ribboned bow and seals the deal. But here, for us queers, it really is a wonderful gift.
Sure, Happiest Season is endearingly tacky as all Christmas movies are, maintains all the tropes of a cheesy Christmas flick, and raises the question of whether queering a heteronormative narrative is what we as a community really want in our queer films, but I excuse all of that because it’s the first time I’ve ever seen myself reflected in a genre that so harshly wants nothing to do with people like me. Plus, it’s just simply fun to watch.
Happiest Season is available in theatres now.