At this point we’re all pretty clear on the basic framework for a Romantic Comedy Christmas movie, right? There’s someone who doesn’t like Christmas, someone who loves it beyond all measure, and a problem—usually related to family somehow—that needs to be resolved so that people can become better, happier people. Family dynamics are almost always messier than they appear on the surface due to some closely guarded secrets. For those of us who enjoy them, Christmas movies are like a cozy blanket into which we can cocoon ourselves. (For those who don’t, I imagine they’re more like a wool army blanket that’s been stored in a damp cellar for several decades.) But until recently, those cozy blankets were almost exclusively available in a heterosexual weave. But, in a year that has otherwise been a blazing sewage fire, Hulu gave us Happiest Season, a a frothy, funny, and mostly charming Queer Rom-Com.
Before we dive in, I think it’s good to bear in mind that no one thing can be everything for everyone, and that’s especially true when we’re talking very mainstream Romantic Comedy about a couple of upper middle class white women falling in love trying to represent a diverse and marginalized community. But I do think the movie at least nods at the fact that there are many more stories that need telling and that everyone’s story is valid. I hope we get to hear and see more of them soon.
Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis) are madly in love. They are so in love that Abby, who hasn’t enjoyed Christmas since her parents died a decade ago, is willing to go on a guided tour of Candycane Lane with Harper, who is so high on Christmas spirit that I wonder if she’s been snorting tinsel on the side.
They were going to spend the holiday apart—Harper would go visit her family and Abby would stay home to pet sit—but then Harper gets caught up in the moment (or see above about snorting too much tinsel) and insists that Abby come home with her to meet her parents and sisters. There’s just one small hitch in the plans (you knew there would be a hitch): Harper lied to Abby about having come out to her family and hometown friends. All of them believe Abby is coming to visit as Harper’s sad “orphan” roommate who is straight. Harper insists she is only waiting because she doesn’t want to do anything to upset the apple cart until after her conservative father has finished his run for mayor. Of course, she waits to share all this with Abby until they are driving through the wilds of Pennsylvania with no possible escape for Abby.
Oopsiedoodles. I’m sure it just slipped Harper’s mind. I mean, is all this a bit of stretch for a believable set up? Sure, but no more of a stretch than umpteen billion movies where someone brings home a fake boyfriend or girlfriend for Christmas. (I mistyped boyfriend as “goyfriend” at first, which made me giggle, but that would be a different genre of holiday movie.) Also, there was the guy who wrote a letter to the “Hola Papi” advice column about his boyfriend pretending that his mother was from Colombia up until they were physically inside the boyfriend’s parents’ house, and it blazingly obvious that NO ONE in his family was remotely latino. So maybe the premise is pretty damn rock solid and people are actually perpetual lying liar faces.
At least twice I wrote in my notes that Harper is the woooooorst. Then, later, I wrote that maybe she’s not the worst, just a person shackled by the expectations of her family and her fear that if she reveals her true self she will lose their love. But I think they’re both true and Harper is still kind of the worst and also kind of just blah. The movie works hard to make it clear that you can love your partner very deeply and also not be ready to come out, so it’s not about her unwillingness to come out. I guess in part it’s that her character feels undeveloped and flat, kind of like her hair in the movie. I spent a great deal of time trying to parse why her bangs looked so off. It’s as if her wig had been put on slightly cockeyed. And I feel like her character had to do so much contorting to make the basic premise of the movie work that they ran out of time to make her motivations clear.
That said, there’s a lot of other stuff going on to distract you from Harper, her possible misaligned wig, and whether or not she’s really the worst. Harper’s mother (Mary Steenburgen) and father (Victor Garber) are pretentious and image conscious traditionalists who bestow love on their three daughters based on their measurable accomplishments. They still hold a candle for Harper’s high school boyfriend and go so far as to invite him to a family dinner. Harper’s extremely competitive oldest sister Sloane (Alison Brie), who attended Yale law school and won all the trophies, was the favored child until her twins were born and she quit practicing law to “create curated gift experiences inside of handmade reclaimed wood vessels” with her husband (Burl Moseley, who sings one of my favorite songs on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend). I just wanted both Sloane and her husband to be able to unclench and breathe. Everyone in the family considers the middle sister Jane (Mary Holland), whose childhood bedroom was in the basement so her night terrors wouldn’t disturb the rest of the family, an overbearing lost cause. She’s overlooked, dismissed, and ignored, except when the internet connection needs fine tuning. Don’t sleep on her, though, because Jane is the true hero and the most interesting character of the movie.
Okay, maybe it’s really a tie between Jane and Abby’s friend John (Dan Levy, who, like a phoenix, has risen from the ashes of Schitt’s Creek to make us laugh and love again).
John is Abby’s sounding board and source of advice when she realizes just how trapped and out of her depth she is with Harper’s dysfunctional family. “There’s nothing more erotic than concealing your authentic selves,” he tells her when she tries to convince him it’s kind of sexy that no one in Harper’s family know they are a couple. When, before leaving on the trip, Abby drags him along on her secret mission to buy an engagement ring, he is utterly appalled, pointing out that it’s heteronormative and asking why she wants to ruin a perfectly good relationship by participating in one of the “most archaic institutions in the history of the human race.” When Abby says she wants to ask Harper’s dad for his blessing, John deadpans, “Way to stick it to the Patriarchy. Well done.” It’s a good and funny counterbalance to the movie’s intentionally mainstream view of love and romance. Later, when Abby is frustrated by Harper’s unwillingness to come out, John reminds her that “everybody’s story is different. There’s your version, and my version, and everything in between,” reminding her and us that there is no one right way. Jane, for her part, is the only person in Harper’s family who has always been unapologetically herself, reveling in her weirdness, opening her arms to everyone, and being utterly absorbed by the complex fantasy novel she’s writing for years and years—it takes a long time to create a world, she reminds her disappointed parents. I think it’s fair to say that John and Jane are the two standouts in the movie both in terms of humor and emotional depth (not that the rest of the extremely talented cast is floundering or anything). They, along with Riley (Aubrey Plaza), Harper’s ex-girlfriend, were often more engaging, complex, and interesting than the main characters.
Of course, you shouldn’t take my kvetching as an indication that I didn’t enjoy this movie, because I enjoyed it a great deal. The various escapades and misunderstandings were funny, the conflicts were poignant, and watching the family finally learn to express their feelings and accept each other and themselves was gratifying. All that said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t put it out there that I would definitely, definitely watch a spin off that follows John’s romantic escapades with Jane along as his trusty sidekick. Then maybe there could be a story about finding a “goyfriend.” Can you make that happen, Hulu? But, while we all wait for that to happen, Happiest Season is a cozy enough YuleTube watch for your eyeballs.
Overall Rating on the Chronically Streaming Pain Scale:
Look, I’m going to be straight with you. I took an instant dislike to the main character Bastian (Luke Mockridge), so I spent a lot of the German mini-series Over Christmas (Netflix) just being irked with his giant man-child, self-centered, immature ways. I just wanted to yell at him to stop pouting and start taking responsibility for his life. Jeesh, grow some ovaries, dude.
However, my strong biases aside, the series is an overall sweet story about a family doing all the things families do in Christmas movies/series: Overcompensating, keeping secrets, miscommunicating, getting in massive fights, royally screwing everything up, apologizing, coming back together, and, finally, realizing the true meaning of Christmas. That last one varies, depending on the perspective, but it’s almost always some variation on the theme of acceptance and togetherness, which is always achieved in less than a day and without one lick of therapy. That, my friends, is a true Christmas miracle!
Bastian is a struggling musician who works a low-paying day job at a call center where he asks callers things like, “have you tried restarting it?” and eats an inordinate number of cookies. He’s pretty broke. So broke that his mother had to send him money just to buy Christmas presents.
He and his ex-girlfriend Fine (Cristina do Rego) were together for over five years before breaking up a year ago. While he insists he’s over it, he still secretly sits in the bathroom and sobs. Why the bathroom? What a dirty and uncomfortable place to cry. He overhears some people saying how his music sucks, which shakes his already fragile ego. Anyway, he is super duper excited about going home to Eifel—the small town where he grew up—because Christmas there is always perfect. (As I have told you ad nauseum, there are those in Christmas movies who are sad or bad and therefore don’t like Christmas. They will learn a lesson that will help them open their hearts and trust people. And then there are those in Christmas movies who are too excited about Christmas being perfect. They will learn a lesson that will help them grow and accept themselves and others. In the end both types end up loving Christmas just the right amount.)
The first blow to his perfect Christmas is to find out that his brother Niklas (Lucas Reiber), who is already a successful doctor, is now dating Fine (Bastian’s ex-girlfriend) and she’s coming to Christmas. I do agree with Bastian here that this is super uncool and he has a right to be upset. On top of that, his parents (Johanna Gastdorf and Rudolf Kowalski) are on edge about something that they refuse to discuss, which is also upsetting. So, Bastian does the only mature thing and punches his brother in the face and then takes off on his childhood bike, riding through some extremely gorgeous scenery. Eventually he ends up at the local bar getting wasted with his childhood friends and eventually hooking up with Karina (Seyneb Saleh), who once dated his brother. Sharing is caring, I guess?
Bastian really, really doesn’t want anyone to know that his life in Berlin hasn’t gone exactly according to plan. What he’s too self-centered to see is that really no one’s life has gone according to their younger dreams, but they’ve adjusted and are making the best of it. Before he manages to figure this out he spends a lot of time moping, drinking, fighting with his brother, riding around on his bike, and royally fucking almost everything up. It’s not a spoiler to say that eventually everything will work itself out, which it does in a pretty touching way. I may have even come around to not strongly disliking Bastian’s character.
And really there are many charming aspects to this short series. There is an entire section where Bastian and his brother search fruitlessly for a suitable Christmas tree. There’s the pastor’s Christmas sermon that goes awry when he can’t stop himself from raging about a stolen Christmas tree.
And, my favorite scene, when the family is playing charades and everyone is shouting out random words like: Organic trash! Surprise! Epiphany! Blind! Overpopulation! Varicose veins! I may have snorted with laughter.
I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t mention Bastian’s grandmother (Carmen-Maja Antoni), who is a veritable font of inappropriate comments, and is constantly wanting to get back to her nursing home so she can watch a Die Hard movie. May we all grow up to become like Bastian’s Oma.
Also, all of the supporting characters are the kind of warm, friendly people with whom you would want your town to be filled. The bartender practically beams with pride as he watches Bastian and Karina flirt over drinks. Hagen (Jonathan Kwesi Aikins), Bastian’s friend and former bandmate, talks about how, unlike other places, the town of Eifel is accepting of refugees and immigrants. And Ingo (Eugen Bauder), who has taken over his father’s roofing business, has his own sweet story.
You know, if you told me you only had time to watch one Christmas-themed movie or series this year, I personally would not pick this one. But if you have time for a whole season of YuleTubing, then this is a well-acted, amusing, pleasant, and overall appealing choice with some outstanding scenery.