It’s the Hallmark lesbian holiday movie for the cishet gaze! Ho! Ho! Oh-no!
Basic plot: Pittsburgh lesbian couple Harper (Mackenzie Davis) and Abby (Kristen Stewart) are headed home, a few hours away by car, to Harper’s parents for the holidays. The trip was to only be Harper until she asked Abby to accompany her. Abby decides that she’s going to ask for Harper’s father’s permission to marry Harper, having already planned to propose. The problem? Harper isn’t out to her parents and lied over the summer about having come out to them, a fact she admits when most of the way through the drive. Worse, Harper’s father has small town political aspirations; currently a city councilor and has designs on mayor, all of which depend on total heteronormativity by his family.
This has the highest production values of any lesbian show I have seen. It’s clear the script had the time and talent available to get the runs through and be quite polished. The casting is some of the best I’ve seen and they are clearly very well rehearsed plus perfectly cast for each role, and all of the on-screen talent are very experienced, quite possibly being the closest thing to an A-list lesbian rom-com to date – multiple have big name acting credits to their names already. The audio is stellar, and except for one scene the video is good (one outside evening scene has a lot of vertical movement of the background.)
There’s an old saying which absolutely applies at this point: that’s damning via faint praise. It is a very professional and polished film, but it’s not really a good film. A friend called this “the lesbian holiday movie for the cishet gaze” and I have to agree: this is the lesbian film the straights can be okay with. Another remarked about tiring of the focus on lesbian trauma, which is also true. For my part it feels like the basis of this was Lez Bomb – the main differences are that in that movie there are no political careers and the girlfriend knows that she’s not out yet. I’ll note here that the creator of the story, screenplay co-writer and director is Clea Duvall, who is lesbian. The “ask for the father’s permission” probably is unique to this in terms of lesbian shows but it is the plot Lilly Brown’s 2014 song “Rude,” gay cover of a Magic!’s 2013 song by the same name.
Lesbian media for lesbians (and this distinction is key) has for a long time been low budget. The production quality was often crap and the acting amateur. I only noticed the unstable camera work because of the contrast to the rest of the show; in the lesbian media I regularly consume it would not have been remarkable (in fairness, this is almost certainly an exhausted crew dealing with late day and the complication of outside in the dead of winter in rural Pennsylvania, which are conditions where the “real feel” temperature rapidly drops – I lived there for 30 years.) What we did get, especially as online platforms like YouTube became available, was some really good stories, and there’s a group of people who gained a lot of on-camera skill at telling a truly good lesbian story from doing some of those early shows. I had wondered what would happen when the production money could be present and now I know…
The production values can’t salvage this. It lives and dies off of the main couple’s trauma, particularly Abby having to deal with her girlfriend’s betrayals, and on that point it even employs the “wear her down and win the girl” trope. Scenes like the political holiday party were well done and Abby’s non-romantic experiences of it are completely believable for me, particularly given my own experience: somehow having done the activism against the infamous bathroom bill in North Carolina in 2016 landed me on more upper-tier list for Governor Roy Cooper’s campaign and I got repeated invitations to such shindigs until I moved to Texas two years later. I felt a lot like Abby did as a foul-mouthed butch dyke on a bike is absolutely not the target demographic of those events. But none of that was the true focus of the scene. Instead, the focus – hell, the only reason for the existence of this scene is the many ways the knife Harper has deposited in Abby’s back gets twisted until she has to run outside to get away from it and vent on the phone only to get one more twist by being unknowingly overheard.
The day after I watched this movie WatchMojo dropped a MsMojo video of the top 10 rom-com couples who should have broken up. Abby and Harper were #2, a ranking with which I absolutely agree. I found myself hoping that Abby and Riley (Aubrey Plaza) would hook up. There’s a scene where Harper finally comes out to her parents and professes her love for Abby, doing so in front of Abby, to which Abby responds that she’s leaving. Harper protests because “I did it!” and Abby says, “I’m sorry, it’s just too late.” That hit me hard because I had a point a few weeks into my divorce; after blowing the chance at reconciliation, which she had requested, my first wife asked for another and the only response I could muster for a few days was the One Republic song “Apologize.”
I worry that I make this movie sound worse than it is. There are some really good scenes, and even ones to which I can deeply relate, like when Abby and Riley go to a gay bar that is absolutely packed, a scene that reminds me of being at The Pinhook in Durham on Christmas Eve, 2016, because I didn’t want to spend the night alone among the boxes in my apartment in Raleigh and my parents had my estranged first wife over at their place that evening.
There’s a fantastic exchange between Abby and her gay best friend, John (Dan Levy) just after “It’s just too late” in which he asks Abby what her parents said when she came out to them, to which she responses “that they loved and supported me.” John responds, “That’s amazing! My dad kicked me out of the house and didn’t talk to me for 13 years after I told him. Everybody’s story is different. There’s your version and my version, and everything in between. But the one thing all of those stories have in common is that moment right before you say those words. When your heart is racing and you don’t know what’s coming next. That moment’s really terrifying! And once you say those words, you can’t un-say them. A chapter has ended, and a new one’s begun. You have to be ready for that. You can’t do it for anyone else.”
This is quite possibly the best description of an LGBTQIA+ experience: whatever else describes us as a group, that we had to face the possible range of response from our families and communities we’d had as of that point may well be the closest thing we have to a universal experience. I have my own, and over the last quarter of a century I’ve been the friend there sharing in the celebration of others when they had complete acceptance, and consoling those who now stood among countless jagged shards because the life they had moments earlier was completely shattered. For me, that’s the message that lands the best in Happiest Season.