When critics use the term “formulaic” to describe a movie, it’s not usually a compliment. Relying on time-worn storytelling beats can make for broad appeal, but people that watch hundreds of movies a year tend to be less impressed by those that play it safe— after all, something no one hates is not the same as something everyone likes. However, there are times when sticking to a formula isn’t about commercial viability, but a conscious creative choice that’s essential to what a film is trying to do. When telling stories from traditionally underrepresented perspectives, there’s power in making them feel familiar. Director Clea DuVall’s Happiest Season, now available to stream on Hulu, is one of those cases.

An almost classic setup with a uniquely queer twist, Happiest Season has Abby (Kristen Stewart) follow her girlfriend Harper (Mackenzie Davis) home for Christmas with an engagement ring in her pocket, only to learn she has yet to come out to her conservative family. Introduced as the orphaned roommate with nowhere else to go for the holidays, Abby struggles to fit in with the competitive, image-focused Caldwells, especially with father Ted’s (Victor Garber) mayoral campaign dominating the conversation. Abby begins to reconsider her relationship as she learns more about her partner’s past and is exposed to a new side of Harper she isn’t sure she likes.

DuVall, who also co-wrote with cast member Mary Holland, has said the story is somewhat autobiographical, and her investment in seeing her life experiences represented on screen is crucial to the film’s success. The premise provides a solid foundation for both Meet the Parents-esque comedy and family drama, and DuVall mines it for both, but Happiest Season is also genuinely interested in exploring what such a scenario would mean for its characters. What would it feel like to watch your significant other deny not only your relationship, but the very idea you could occupy that role in their life? Or watch them be flirted with by their high school sweetheart of the opposite sex? What would that do to a previously happy, healthy couple? Even as the movie couches questions like these in the language of a standard Christmas rom-com, it never abandons them, resulting in an emotional, sincere climax that might surprise viewers with its impact.

Of course, audiences might never make it that far if the formula wasn’t realized effectively, and Happiest Season owes a great deal to its casting department. DuVall leans on her actors to ground archetypical characters in believability, and it’s difficult to imagine this film succeeding as it does without their performances. Both Holland as the comically neglected middle-sister Jane and Dan Levy as Abby’s friend John deserve special mention, Levy especially so— his delicate ability to switch from snarky commentary to tender sincerity carries the movie’s most important moment. If Happiest Season falters anywhere, it is in managing our relationship with Harper. She is intentionally vilified enough to make us question whether we want Abby to stay with her, but despite Davis’ humanizing performance, she never recovers all of that ground; the impact of the ending could have been greater if her character was more endearing, and not just her plight. Still, DuVall’s film remains a funny, touching romantic comedy, and an excellent way to ease into the spirit of Christmas.  

Alexander Harrison

Alex Harrison is an emerging film critic getting a Masters in Film Studies in his spare time