Ah the holiday season! What a beautiful time of year. A time for togetherness, jolly good fun and dealing with family. While the latter has traditionally never been a common problem, many queer folks do not associate the holiday season with merriment; rather, it is a stressful, awkward and downright difficult time for most. Going home for the holidays for a lot of young queer folks means either dealing with passive aggressive comments about one’s lack of straightness or returning to the closet like an old pair of jeans. While these aren’t the cases for all queer people, it happens to enough of us for it to become a trope for fictional stories.
Hulu’s Happiest Season, starring (our one true sapphic) Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Aubrey Plaza and Dan Levy among others, is a Christmas movie dealing with the same. Harper (Davis) and Abby (Stewart), a young queer couple, travel to Harper’s family home for the holidays, where Abby plans to pop the big question. Unfortunately, her plans are thwarted because Harper isn’t out to her parents and she’s informed them that Abby is just her “straight” roommate attending their family’s Christmas extravaganza. So, Abby not only has to deal with the disappointment of her proposal plans being ruined but also has to go back in the closet for her partner’s sake. While dealing with the awkwardness of forced closeting, they both also happen to run into two of Harper’s exes from back in the day, complicating an already difficult situation.
Now yes, I know what you’re thinking: it isn’t a perfect movie by any measure. It has some obvious tropes, a lot of ‘Caucacity’ and a very overly exaggerated, goofy sibling (looking at you, Jane). But as the moral of the story suggests, perfection isn’t supposed to be the norm. Harper and her sisters realise that they have lived their whole lives with a constant fear of abandonment – striving to achieve a level of perfection that their parents held them to, while constantly lying about who they are – ruining their own sibling relationships over a pathetic attempt at being their parents’ favourite. They realise, that at the end of the day, the only thing they ever needed to be was true to themselves, and for Harper that meant being a queer woman in love with her partner, regardless of what her family might think of them.
The whole being ‘a perfect overachiever in order to compensate your hidden queerness so that it can never be weaponised against you in order to prove your existence as a disappointment to your family’ hits very close to home. Harper’s dilemma wasn’t centred around her relationship with her partner, as Dan Levy’s character very succinctly summarises for the upset Abby; her denial was born out of sheer helplessness and anxiety that all closeted individuals have experienced. The abject horror of being rejected and neglected is too big to let go of in the name of spontaneity, but one look at Abby’s sullen face jolts Harper into taking a leap of faith, proving to her once and for all that Abby’s love is more than enough. And in the end, her family does come around and just like that, all’s well.
So yes, Happiest Season isn’t the best movie out there, but it is one of the rare few queer movies that has a traditional happy ending which automatically makes it a comforting watch. More often than not, the genre that is queer cinema has uncomfortably focused too much on queer suffering and queer pain. Hollywood is obsessed with overusing traumatic tropes for depicting queer love stories; most mainstream queer stories have included some mix of death, abandonment, bullying, abuse and/or violence. Critics only ever accept queer cinema if it depicts the harsh reality of queer experience, with its dark undertones and intellectual plotting and overtly sad storylines – only then are those movies considered great.
But is the queer experience only limited to the pain we have endured because of our identities? Are our lives only worth being made into art if they challenge the cis-het notions of normality? Does everything a queer person makes, says or writes need to the epitome of perfection for it to be given any attention or praise? Is cinema only considered important and intellectual when it depicts the greyness of existence? We, as consumers of the visual medium, have grown to be so complacent with pretence that cinema has now become more about matching our violent and corrupt realities than being the escapist dream it used to be. With the erasure of rom-coms and chick-flicks, we’ve turned the movie business into a machine that churns out materials that further depress the neurodivergent while the neurotypicals critique with their arms folded, trashing anything that remotely resembles happiness.
Happiest Season is a fresh breath of air in the midst of this smoginess. Christmas movies have always been about hope, love and belief. They are simple, easy to digest, cheesy and cliché. Their formulaic system works perfectly in the case of the queer romance trope, because, goddamnit we deserve to see two queer people be in love in a place and time where nothing goes wrong and they can be happy together in the end! Queer people deserve to see queer joy being flaunted on their screens with gay abandon (pun intended). We deserve to have stories which don’t require us to find the underlying subtext or hidden queercodes or silver linings. Don’t get me wrong, I love using my English literature degree analysis skills to discern the homoerotic subtext in every movie I see, but God, I don’t think it’s too much to ask for a cute and simple queer story that doesn’t require me to whack out my magnifying glass every minute.
In conclusion, Happiest Season is a cosy gift to give yourself during the holiday season, whether you celebrate Christmas or not; I think we can all use a little bit of Aubrey Plaza and Kristen Stewart to mend our tired hearts.