Hulu’s long awaited lesbian rom-com Happiest Season dropped this week and queer Twitter is tearing itself apart.
In one camp are the defenders who call it an “instant holigay classic,” praising its depiction of internalized homophobia and the horrors of coming out. In the other camp are the heartbroken critics, appalled by the film’s toxic central relationship. Any film about an under-represented minority faces enormous pressure to be everything to everyone, so the vocal responses to Happiest Season aren’t surprising.
While I want to cut Happiest Season some slack for failing to reach our sky-high expectations, I can’t ignore the heart-sinking hurt that so many queer folks felt while watching it.
Happiest Season could have been a great, tragic movie about a woman afraid to come out as a lesbian while her conservative father runs for Mayor on a platform rooted in tradition and family. But Clea DuVall’s film was aggressively marketed as the lesbian Christmas rom-com of our dreams, and a rom-com it most definitely was not.
Happiest Season doesn’t work because it breaks the cardinal rule of romantic comedies: that the film’s love interest must adore and champion its heroine.
Most romantic comedies humiliate their characters. There is a certain level of cringe factor you expect when you press play on a genre dedicated to love overcoming all obstacles. It’s routine for rom-com heroes to face cruel bosses, critical mothers, deceitful lovers and their own vicious insecurities.
But the best rom-coms understand that, while the world may torment our heroes, their love interests are a source of strength and understanding.
The best example of the perfect rom-com love interest is Mark Darcy from Bridget Jones’s Diary. The 2001 rom-com puts its heroine through hell: most of the film’s laughs are at Bridet’s expense, and she is constantly mocked for her weight. Who can forget Bridget sliding down a fireman’s pole and slamming her ass directly into the camera as she reports a story live on the air?
But even as Bridget is humiliated again and again by the world around her, Mark Darcy adores her. Her love interest does everything he can to champion Bridget, from aiding her career to looking at her with heart-eye-emoji adoration in every scene. If this film is a modern classic, it’s because of Mark’s awkward declaration of his feelings: “I like you very much, just as you are.”
It takes Mark and Bridget a long time to overcome miscommunication and understand each other, but there is never any doubt that they respect one another. They may disappoint each other, and they take turns humiliating themselves for each other, but they never inflict that humiliation on each other intentionally.
Happiest Season does the opposite from the very beginning. Abby (Kristen Stewart) is constantly humiliated and left to stand on her own by Harper (Mackenzie Davis). This dynamic is set up early when Harper impulsively invites Abby to celebrate Christmas with her family, whom she has yet to meet. The next morning, Harper clearly regrets this decision and tries to wiggle out of it, but instead of telling Abby why coming home with her might not be the best idea, she waits until they are in the car to tell her the truth.
It turns out that Harper has been lying to Abby for months about coming out to her family, and they’re under the impression that Abby is her orphaned roommate, not her life partner.
The film approaches this as a wacky rom-com premise: Can two lesbians who are madly in love hide their relationship from Harper’s conservative parents? But Harper’s deception is a serious betrayal. The writing works overtime to gloss over the fact that Harper has been lying to Abby for months and only came clean when her girlfriend was trapped in the car en route to said conservative parents. In this way, Happiest Season has more in common with the horror film Get Out than with its holiday rom-com peers.
Time and time again, Harper puts Abby in uncomfortable social situations and abandons her there. Harper’s father is running for Mayor, and much of the film is made up of campaign events where Harper ignores her girlfriend, despite the fact that Abby knows literally no one else in attendance.
To add insult to injury, when Harper’s parents constantly invite her ex-boyfriend to these functions in the hopes that they’ll get back together, Harper chooses to spend time with him instead of Abby. It’s never explained why Harper prioritizes Connor: it’s not just for appearances, as Connor and Harper stay out together until 2AM, long after their high school friends have called it a night. The viewer is left just as hurt and confused as Abby by Harper’s disloyal behavior.
To her credit, Abby never loses her temper. She cuts Harper endless slack, aware that this is a painful experience for Harper, too. In that respect, Abby is a wonderful rom-com heroine, serving as a pillar of love and support as Harper navigates her family’s judgment and high expectations. But when Abby maturely communicates her frustration that Harper stayed out late with Connor, Harper lashes out. She accuses Abby of “suffocating” her and demands space, which is pretty rich considering she’s taken her girlfriend to her remote family home under false pretenses and Abby literally cannot leave.
It is clear to viewers why we should root for Abby, who is a patient, supportive girlfriend. But it’s never clear why we should root for her to live happily-ever-after with Harper, whose redeeming qualities don’t go far beyond “loving Christmas.”
Harper’s lack of development and charm holds back the plot development of Happiest Season, too. The best rom-coms drive the plot through both internal and external conflict. The external conflict here is Harper and Abby’s attempt to get through the holiday without revealing their queer identities, and the internal conflict is Harper’s struggle to accept herself and tell her family who she truly is. But Harper’s character development is unconvincing and unearned. We don’t witness her making steps forward and dwell constantly on her many steps backward.
Happiest Season fails as a rom-com most unforgivably when it comes to the great big “coming out” scene, which is where the internal and external plot lines collide and blow up in spectacular fashion. After a physical fight—played for laughs that never come—Harper’s truly terrible sister Sloan outs her and Abby as lesbians at the family’s massive Christmas party.
It is painful to watch Harper’s choice to come out being taken away from her in such a public and cruel fashion. As viewers, we expect Harper to rise to the occasion and turn this humiliating moment into a victorious opportunity to finally claim her identity. Perhaps that’s unfair of us, but it’s the logical progression of her internal conflict.
Instead, Harper melts down. She denies that she is gay, once again choosing to publicly humiliate the woman she claims to love. It is a scorched earth moment, and one the film never recovers from. Her belated attempt to tell her parents the truth and stand by her partner comes too late, as Abby herself says. In a final act romantic gesture in the form of stalking via surveillance technology, Harper has nothing to offer Abby beyond more apologies and words of love that she has no reason to really trust. We don’t have much proof that Harper has changed.
While we understand why Harper behaves the way she does, that doesn’t make it okay for her to inflict her pain onto Abby. Coming out can be traumatic, and as the film strives to underline, it is a different experience for all of us. That being said, it’s also deeply upsetting to be forced back into the closet by your partner and watch her choose her fear over her love for you—over and over again. There are only so many times that a character can choose to fail the film’s hero and still be redeemed.
The weirdest element of Happiest Season is that of Riley, Harper’s ex-girlfriend from high school, played with maturity and sex appeal by Aubrey Plaza. Riley is a lightning rod of warmth and comedy, and her supportive nature fills the void left empty by Harper’s selfishness. When Harper leaves Abby hanging, Riley steps up. She takes Abby to a gay bar and helps her process her girlfriend’s mystifying behavior. She brings Abby shopping when Harper abandons her because she needs space.
It doesn’t help that Aubrey Plaza and Kristen Stewart have wonderful chemistry, bantering together in a booth while serenaded by drag queen legends Jinkx Monsoon and BenDeLaCreme. Happiest Season’s uneven writing sets up Riley as Abby’s supportive love interest instead of Harper. With Aubrey Plaza’s kindness and charm, we’re reminded of what a queer heroine worth rooting for looks and sounds like.
I have no doubt that Happiest Season will join the canon of hotly debated queer films. It’s one of the first of its kind, and star turns by Dan Levy, Aubrey Plaza and Kristen Stewart provide endless meme fodder. But I hope that queer filmmakers will learn from Happiest Season’s failures.
If you’re making a romantic comedy, you need to write a relationship — and a love interest — worth rooting for. That so many viewers were left wanting to write Riley/Abby fan fiction to resolve the movie’s plot holes is the best evidence that Happiest Season didn’t live up to its hype.