Entertainment

'Happiest Season' Should Go On Your Holiday Watch List Immediately

The beautiful Hulu movie stars Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis.

happiest season, mackenzie davis, kristen stewart
Hulu

Clea DuVall, star of Veep and But I'm a Cheerleader, loves Christmas movies. "Even the ones that are not that good," she says. "I'll still watch them. There's, like, one movie in my rotation that is so bad that my partner is like, 'Why do you want to watch that movie?' I'm like, I don't know. I gotta watch it." DuVall, ever the diplomat, won't say which one that is, but now she's made her very own entry into the genre's canon: Happiest Season, a queer Christmas rom-com streaming on Hulu. 

Happiest Season, which DuVall co-wrote and directed, does not fall into the category of so-bad-it's-good fare. Rather, it's a frequently very funny movie that gives off warm and twinkly holiday vibes while also retaining a hefty amount of bite. Kristen Stewart stars as Abby, who is wildly in love with her girlfriend Harper (Mackenzie Davis) and plans to propose over Christmas.

But there's a reason that this is the first time Abby is invited to join Harper's family for the season: On the car ride to the suburbs, Harper reveals that she's not out to her parents yet. Her dad (Victor Garber) is coded conservative and running for mayor of their town, and Harper is his favorite who is terrified of doing anything that will displease him. So she's remained in the closet, and Abby is forced to play along. What follows is a comedy of errors that recalls The Birdcage, which is also about all the different ways in which people come out. 

"I've been on both sides," DuVall says. "I've been Abby and I've been Harper." The story is mostly told from Abby's often understandably frustrated perspective, but DuVall wanted to make sure Harper's journey was represented as well. "[I was] making a movie with the message of coming out is a process," she says. "It's a journey and it doesn't look any one way. It looks like so many different things, but no matter what your experience is, be gentle with yourself, be kind to yourself. 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." 

To play Harper, DuVall recruited Halt and Catch Fire star Mackenzie Davis, winning her over with immediate friendship and the promise of escape rooms. Yes, escape rooms. "I haven't made a ton of friends from work, but Clea, I just was in love with right away, and I'm just going to talk too much about escape rooms now so we can move on," Davis says. According to Davis, one of DuVall's earliest pitches was that the cast would do escape rooms together for bonding purposes. At this point, Davis figures she's done about 12 with DuVall so far, some with other members of the cast like Stewart and Mary Steenburgen, who plays Harper's mom. 

Davis was concerned that Harper would feel like the "villain" of the movie, choosing her family over Abby in order to keep her secret, but DuVall helped make her feel comfortable in her performance with her lack of judgement for the character. "She does bad stuff in the movie and she hurts a very charming person, but I also think it speaks to how many people get hurt when we hew to very strict lines of 'acceptable identities,'" Davis says. "There is all of this shrapnel that gets spewed." 

Happiest season
Hulu

This is all to say that Happiest Season has a lot of nuance for what is often a pretty frothy genre, but DuVall also wanted her film to fit into those seasonal trappings. Harper's uptight family and their traditions "felt pretty iconic Christmas" to DuVall, who was also insistent that her movie shoot during winter in a location that was actually cold. At the same time, she and her team didn't just want to paint everything red and green and throw a bunch of lights up. "[We wanted] to be able to find ways to have the holidays in there without feeling like we were shoving it down your throat," DuVall explains. "So it feels like Christmas more than it looks like Christmas. Christmastime, holiday time, is a feeling less than it is a visual." 

DuVall, as a fan of even the crappiest holiday entertainment, is aware of the place these films hold in our lives, which makes Happiest Season all the more vital. "Christmas movies become a part of our lives in a way that other movies just don't," she says. "Growing up watching Christmas movies as a LGBTQ+ person, I had never seen my experience represented. If there was any kind of LGBTQ character, they were in the background or tossed in to diversify an otherwise normal family. I always wished there was a movie where I felt represented, just a silent hope. As I transitioned into writing and directing, I realized I could make that movie that I had always wanted to see."

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