Entertainment

Does Kristen Stewart End Up with the Wrong Person in 'Happiest Season'?

Aubrey Plaza's Riley has won over the internet.

happiest season aubrey plaza
Hulu

It turns out the most controversial movie of the holiday season is not Ron Howard's Hillbilly Elegy or some wannabe awards contender; it's Clea DuVall's Christmas rom-com Happiest Season. Since the movie's debut on Hulu this Thanksgiving weekend, it has been the subject of intense internet debate: Is it cute or secretly a nightmare story about a group of terrible people? (By the way: It can be both.) Most importantly, does Kristen Stewart's heroine end up with the wrong person? 

DuVall's take on the classic genre stars Stewart as Abby, who is invited to spend the holidays for the first time with the family of her girlfriend Harper (Mackenzie Davis). But on the way to the suburbs, Harper drops a bomb: She's not out to her parents yet. Her dad (Victor Garber) is a conservative perfectionist running for mayor, and Harper hasn't wanted to rock the boat. This forces Abby to also hide her identity for the stay and causes all sorts of problems between the couple.

During the course of the visit, Abby meets Riley, Harper's high school ex and first girlfriend, played by Aubrey Plaza. Harper is cold to Riley and at first she reads like something of the movie's villain, the hot former flame who has come to disrupt our happy couple. But DuVall and co-writer Mary Holland's screenplay is smarter than that. When Harper ditches Abby for yet another family dinner, Abby reaches out to Riley. They go to a local gay bar—where BenDeLaCreme and Jinkx happen to be performing—and they bond over Harper's shittiness. Riley reveals that she and Harper dated in secret in high school, and when one of Harper's friends discovered a love note from Riley in Harper's locker, Harper, in order to save her own ass, outed Riley, allowing her to be ostracized by basically the entire school. It's one of the many things Harper does or has done that seem indefensible. 

Abby and Riley have genuine chemistry, and Plaza oozes aloof sex appeal. That's why people across Twitter are asking the question: Why don't they end up together? 

Plaza herself has some feelings about this in an interview clip that went semi viral. "I hope that people walk away from the movie and they are disappointed that Kristen Stewart didn't end up with my character and they, like, riot in the street about it," she said. Honestly, fair enough.

But, here's the thing: I'm actually happy that there is no romantic plot line between Abby and Riley, even though Riley rules and Harper sort of sucks. I kept expecting Riley and Abby to share a kiss, a moment that would have turned Riley into a stereotypical temptress villain and shifted some blame onto Abby. Instead, DuVall is attempting to make a movie that's more complicated than just a standard love triangle. 

Harper acts like a complete asshole, but it's clear her behavior is rooted in years of self-loathing. Abby and Riley are forced to watch from the sidelines as a person they both love transforms into someone cruel and tortured in order to appease the artificial rules of propriety to which her stuffy family adheres. That their friendship doesn't have a romantic angle is somehow more touching. They are bound by their shared experience and ability to commiserate with one another. Riley has seemingly resigned herself to feeling sorry for Harper, which is both more brutal and sad than if she wanted to sabotage Harper's current relationship. 

Whether or not Harper deserves her redemption is another matter entirely, but DuVall clearly believes so. When I interviewed her, she explained that she sees the movie about the range of coming out experiences: "It looks like so many different things, but no matter what your experience is, be gentle with yourself, be kind to yourself," she said. "Having compassion for that experience, and being able to see someone who is struggling and is able to push through and have their happy ending, and that person still deserves to be loved and that person can redeem themselves, I think is really important and something I haven't really seen before."

This is all to say: I get it. Riley arguably is a better match for Abby. But Happiest Season's choices make for a more affecting, interesting watch. So go ahead and write all the Riley and Abby fanfiction you want; I'll be rewatching the ending DuVall already made.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.
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