13th December: Happiest Season

Image: Sony Pictures

The Reel Time Christmas Movie Advent Calendar is exactly what it says on the tin: a classic festive countdown, except instead of chocolate behind the windows it’s my ramblings on a host of Christmas films. In true advent calendar style, films will not be announced in advance, but revealed at 6pm each day. Get involved by shouting abuse at me on Twitter and Facebook, or even just reading and sharing. I hope this can bring a little cheer at the end of a miserable year. Enjoy! 

Year: 2020

Director: Clea DuVall

Writers: Clea DuVall, Mary Holland

Starring: Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Mary Steenburgen, Mary Holland, Dan Levy, Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Victor Garber

Well we are in for treat today, with a brand new film hiding behind our advent calendar window. Happiest Season, just released this year on Hulu in the States and available on demand in the UK, is actor turned writer-director Clea DuVall’s attempt at re-working what feels like a classic ‘picture-perfect family Christmas gone wrong’ sub-genre. You know the kind of thing: where some people are more obsessed with image than love, where secrets come spilling out, and where bubbling tension eventually gives way to shouting and screaming. There’s shades of it in Krampus, in fact, and it is a formula done well by the Danish film That Time of Year too.

Happiest Season is a marvellous version of these somewhat familiar events. It tells its story with a sincerity and warmth that makes its closing scenes genuinely touching. It is also frequently funny, getting probably the biggest laughs out of me in my entire Christmas Movie Advent Calendar so far. The set-up is that Abbie (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis) are off to spend Christmas with the latter’s family, but just before they arrive Harper tells her girlfriend that she has in fact not come out to her parents. Abbie must therefore remain quiet and pretend just to be Harper’s poor orphaned roommate the whole time.

This leads to a whole series of excellent moments in what is for a large part a comedy of manners. That Abbie’s parents died 10 years ago provides the basis for much of the squeamish humour, with every member of Harper’s family insisting on mentioning it and showing how terribly sorry they are at every opportunity. Then of course there’s the skulking around and the near-misses as Abbie and Harper desperately try to keep their relationship a secret.

DuVall mines gold out of these moments, but has admirable restraint too, never overplaying her jokes or relying too heavily on one plot point. As with all family comedy-dramas like this, much of the joy comes from a big ensemble cast, each bringing something fresh and entertaining to the table. Mary Steenburgen is wonderful as Harper’s mother, and the film’s co-writer Mary Holland steals scene after scene as Harper’s sweet if ill-adjusted sister Jane. Schitt’s Creek start Dan Levy makes an excellent rom-com best-friend too, equal parts comic relief and emotional crutch. Fellow TV comedy favourites Alison Brie and Aubrey Plaza also do their bit to contribute to a consistently enjoyable film.

Where DuVall’s film really soars is in its blending of genres and tones. The family drama elements are well-observed and authentically delivered, harbouring a message about our obsession with perfection and sibling rivalry that nestles perfectly into the Christmas setting. The comedy plays on character traits in a way that helps advance the movie narratively and thematically without forgetting to be funny. Then at the heart of it is essentially a classic rom-com, but one with a real depth of feeling. Abbie and Harper’s love is clear, and their quest to have it public and accepted is something we can easily invest in.

Where it Ranks

A high-level rom-com, a heartwarming Christmas film, a hilarious and touching family drama: Happiest Season delivers on all levels that it aims to. I have little hesitance in saying that it is one of the finest films in this list. The toughest decision to make here is between this and Klaus, but for the amount I laughed, Happiest Season edges it. Bravo.

  1. Die Hard
  2. Happiest Season
  3. Klaus
  4. Arthur Christmas
  5. Elf
  6. The Nightmare Before Christmas
  7. Love Actually
  8. Gremlins
  9. Home Alone
  10. Krampus
  11. Nativity!
  12. The Holiday
  13. The Santa Clause

Andrew Young

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