The Coerced Gratitude of “Happiest Season”

Photo by Lacey Terrell/Hulu

Spoilers ahead

Sue me, I was excited for Happiest Season. A gay Christmas romcom where Kristen Stewart wears suits and Mary Steenburgen wears red? Two, please.

Unfortunately, like a lot of people I know, I watched and then hated Happiest Season. I’m no Grinch: I find great comfort in the fevered, credibility-stretching symphonies of your Family Stones and your The Holidays. Nor do I require my queer content sanded-down and conflict-free — I don’t subscribe to the notion that grappling intelligently with our suffering is somehow counter to a cause. But Happiest Season doesn’t do any intelligent grappling. It exposes real pain and then patches over it with flimsy genre cliches. It’s a standard-issue holiday product that’s been injected with the messy, upsetting realities of queer life, and it doesn’t survive the transfusion.

The premise is pretty straightforward. Harper (Mackenzie Davis) and Abby (Kristen Stewart) are lesbians who live in Pittsburgh. Harper asks Abby to come home with her for Christmas in a moment of passion, and then reveals that she’s not out to her family when they’re most of the way there. Abby is passed off as her straight, orphaned roommate. Aubrey Plaza shows up as a delightful ex-girlfriend; Dan Levy is gay and on the phone.

Most of the Twitter talk about the film goes something like this: Mackenzie Davis shoving Kristen Stewart back in the closet for the sake of her evil WASP family in suburban Pennsylvania makes her bad, actually. I tend to agree. There is, though, an undeniable amount of pathos in the conceit: coming out is hard, and finding the courage to alter your parents’ perception of you gets arguably harder the older you get. There’s an intelligent movie to be made about that fraught dynamic, but Happiest Season approaches it with the same whimsy as Sarah Jessica Parker dropping a pan of strata in The Family Stone. We never spend enough time with Harper to fully grasp what makes her tick — we just watch her behave terribly from a distance until Abby gives her a hug. The resultant unresolved tension leaves a pit in your stomach.

Plenty of people like this movie just fine, thank you, and I respect that. The jokes land more often than they need to and, as usual, it’s hard not to be sucked in by whatever it is that Kristen Stewart’s face does to a camera. What I don’t respect, and have seen crop up quite a bit in the public discourse, is the notion that, as queer people, we should “just be grateful something like this exists at all.” “Look, sure, it’s not perfect, it doesn’t even really address your hurt properly, but it’s all there is for now. That’s something, right?” It’s a grossly condescending framework, and one I suspect a lot of queer people find troublingly familiar.

Baked into queerness, for some — for me — is a willingness to accept less than you know you deserve for fear that the alternative might be nothing at all. I came out in high school, and no one shoved me in a locker, and I heard day and again what a privilege that was. Never mind that I was almost entirely sidelined from dating; never mind that I was still moving through a world that didn’t even pretend to be designed for me. I was tolerated, and it was my job to spin that into some sort of triumph.

I’ve also been hidden before. It didn’t hurt that badly. His family came to town, I got a half-awkward “this is my friend” introduction, and that was that. He came out shortly after and I was never made to sleep in a basement or lie about having an ex-girlfriend. Eventually, though, the relationship curdled, and it was obvious to pretty much everyone who watched us interact that I shouldn’t be in it anymore. But I didn’t leave, because I worried I’d never get anything like it again if I did.

This is, of course, a semi-universal experience. Straight people also stay in bad relationships because they have low self-esteem. But with queer relationships, it’s more complicated — the impulse to stay is driven by a conviction that finding happiness in the first place was a fluke. I wish Happiest Season understood that difference. Instead, it affects a sort of misguided liberal “colorblindness,” and tries to exist in a world where your partner allowing her family to treat you like shit so she doesn’t have to admit she’s gay is a forgivable flaw on par with, say, your partner working too much.

At one point, Abby learns that Harper outed her secret high school girlfriend to save her own face 15 years ago. This was where my stomach finally sunk. This woman is a coward. It’s one thing to inflict that kind of pain as a teenager; it’s another to behave the same way 15 years later toward someone with whom you have an ostensibly deep, adult connection. Harper puts Abby through actual hell, lashes out when she’s gently called on it, and in a climactic moment when she’s given full clearance to come clean, still refuses to. She blames all of this on the stresses of the closet. So did my ex-boyfriend. A careful movie would examine that — the impulse to excuse hideous behavior as an offshoot of self-hate. It would take pains to convince us Harper can and will make amends, and that Abby will get the kind of love she deserves. Happiest Season is not a careful movie. A momentary change of heart is enough to sweep it all under the rug, and we’re left worrying Abby has embedded herself in a family of narcissists for the sake of convenience.

The calibration is all wrong. It’s great that this film was made by a gay woman; it’s still excruciating to watch, and its rushed conclusion borders on irresponsible. It transposes something heavy onto rickety scaffolding not designed to bear the load, and it winds up collapsing. “But at least I’m a gay Christmas movie!” it screams, trodding insensitively on holy ground and then courting our gratitude for existing in the first place. But real gratitude is earned, not granted on technicality.

I’m not grateful for Happiest Season. I’m disappointed by it. It’s a waste, the most joyless queer film since Boy Erased. If you’re looking to watch two women glance passionately at each other during Christmas, fork over the $4 to rent Carol, and then wait patiently for a gay yuletide romcom that gets it.

I live in Portland and write for a magazine. Nice!