In my house, there are three movies that we have to watch every Christmas or it just isn’t Christmas: Elf, Love Actually and Noelle, which debuted on Disney+ last year and as such is a new addition to the roster. Those films all basically embody what I think a makes a classic Christmas movie: they’re not exactly avant-garde works of art, but they all feature great performances with likable casts and fill their formulaic stories with a ton of heart and charm. So my criteria for judging Happiest Season is whether it’s one of those charming Christmas movies that I’ll come back to every year, or if it’s just one of the hundred forgettable Christmas movies that get churned out every year nowadays.
The biggest strength Happiest Season has going for it is an incredible cast led by star Kristen Stewart, who is just dripping with charisma as Abby, whose parents died ten years ago around Christmas. Abby hasn’t really celebrated the holiday since. Her girlfriend, Harper (Mackenzie Davis), loves Christmas, and in an attempt to make Abby love it again, she invites her to spend it with her and her family. The wrinkle, however, is that Harper lied when she told Abby she had come out to her parents and just before they arrive, she springs on Abby that she wants her to pretend to be her platonic, heterosexual roommate through Christmas.
The rest of the cast includes Victor Garber as Harper’s father who is running for mayor, Mary Steenburgen as her tightly-wound mother Tipper, Mary Holland and Alison Brie as Harper’s sisters Jane and Sloan, Schitt’s Creek’s Dan Levy as Abby’s friend John and Aubrey Plaza in a scene-stealing turn as Riley, Harper’s first girlfriend. They are the movie’s biggest strength and like in any good Christmas movie, they elevate a script that could have ended up on Hallmark Movies and Mysteries at 10 P.M. Sunday night into an exceptionally enjoyable experience.
If you’ve ever seen a Hollywood film before, this one plays out exactly the way you think it’s going to after the first twenty minutes, which is not necessarily a bad thing — if predicable movies were bad by default, we wouldn’t have had people wanting Avengers: Endgame to win an Oscar and I wouldn’t have watched Elf every year for the last decade. The question with this type of formulaic movie becomes if the performances and writing have enough charm, humor and heart to make you invested even though you pretty much know how the plot will unfold.
The answer to the question of if Happiest Season is able to pull this off is “very nearly.” The biggest issue with the film is the central relationship between Abby and Harper. Kristen Stewart is so likable and so charming that everyone in the audience is going to fall in love with her and be rooting for her the entire time, which is exactly what the lead in a romantic comedy needs to accomplish. The problem is that through a combination of the writing and Mackenzie Davis’s performance, the same cannot be said for Harper, and that is going to leave the audience wondering why Abby is with her in the first place.
There’s a real lack of chemistry between Stewart and Davis that’s compounded by how effortless Stewart’s scenes with Dan Levy and Aubrey Plaza feel. Davis generally just feels a little wooden and uncomfortable in her role. Imagine if Elf was exactly the same, but with Rob Schneider as the lead instead of Will Ferrell. That’s what it’s like having Mackenzie Davis in this film compared to the rest of the cast.
Then there’s the Save the Cat problem. I said this movie was formulaic, and the formula for Hollywood movies like this is laid out most famously in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, named after his expression for what he considered the most important aspect of writing a script: you have to get the audience on the main characters’ side. Happiest Season follows Blake Snyder’s beat sheet almost to the minute, but it fails to make us want Abby and Harper’s relationship to work during all the turmoil that’s heaped on them. Just one solid example of what Harper does that makes Abby love her so much would go so far in improving her character.
There are a few problems outside of Mackenzie Davis’ Harper, though, mainly plot threads that come up and go nowhere and ultimately serve no real purpose. A thread that sees Abby wrongly accused of shoplifting ultimately doesn’t add up to anything other than excuse to bring in Lauren Lapkis and Timothy Simons as mall security guards. Admittedly, this is one of the funniest scenes in the movie, but it does feel a bit tacked on.
Despite these flaws, Happiest Season does have a lot going for it. Clea DuVall does a great job letting the emotional ups and downs of the script land without overpowering the generally lighthearted tone. Dan Levy is the breakout star of the ensemble, delivering most of the comic relief as well as carrying the film’s emotional climax.
I set out to decide if Happiest Season was a potential holiday classic or just one of the nearly 100 new Christmas movies debuting in 2020, but it isn’t really either. I think it will be the best Christmas movie of 2020, and if you want to watch a new Christmas movie this year then it should be Happiest Season. It’s funny and charming and it comes very close to doing everything right; I just don’t think that ten years from now you’ll be looking forward to your annual viewing of it.
Happiest Season will be available to watch November 25 on Hulu.
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