Happiest Season, directed by Clea DuVall and filmed in Pittsburgh last year, is actually partially set in the city, unlike many films shot here, which usually pretend it's New York. Abby (Kristen Stewart) is an art history PhD student at Carnegie Mellon University and lives with her girlfriend Harper (Mackenzie Davis), a journalist at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (no comment). Harper is planning to go home to her parent's house for Christmas, while Abby is planning on staying home, until Harper invites her at the last minute. But it's not until they're halfway through the drive that Harper reveals she hasn't yet come out to her parents, and wants to pretend she and Abby are merely platonic roommates.
The film follows the classic holiday movie format where one person in a couple loves Christmas in an obsessive, almost unhealthy way (Harper), and the other person is blasé over the whole holiday (Abby). Things seem okay at first, until it becomes clear that Harper's dad (Victor Garber) who is running for mayor, is probably a conservative Republican, and remaining closeted helps his campaign. Him being a Republican is never mentioned explicitly — it would have been more efficient if it were — but the clues are there. The rest of the family, meanwhile, thinks they are functional, but are clearly deeply dysfunctional.
Harper's mom (Mary Steenburgen, great as always) has overly high expectations for her daughters, played by Mary Holland, who co-wrote the film, and Alison Brie, whose character makes high-end gift baskets approved by Goop. Harper, the golden child of the family, is too afraid to come out because she doesn't want to disappoint them. The tension between Harper's fear of rejection and Abby's pain at being hidden becomes central to the movie, and embraces the idea that everyone's coming out story is different.
There's no doubt that Happiest Season is special, both for its portrayal of lesbian romance and for exploring the complexity of someone accepting their sexuality, but the movie can feel stiff and disjointed. Making history doesn't always equate to making a great movie. Stewart and Davis lack the chemistry that is essential to a good Rom-Com.
For me, a good romantic comedy is not just about the natural chemistry but also the dialogue between the couple. They should have banter and quips, but neither Abby or Harper have any great lines, or a distinct personality. Instead, the side characters carry the movie, namely Steenburgen and Dan Levy (as Abby's best friend), pulling more than their share of the weight. Mostly, it made me want a movie starring just Steenburgen and Levy (mother and son? Aunt and nephew? Coworkers? It doesn't really matter).
The end of the movie culminates in an explosive fight during the family's Christmas party, in which Harper comes out, but only because she is forced to. Without giving too much away, the pivotal scene is cringeworthy and intense but is quickly wrapped up in a neat way that negates the weight of the moment.
It's hard to balance expectations with a movie like this, one that is groundbreaking but shouldn't be, and has to try to be everything to everyone, even though that's an impossible feat. Happiest Season is a perfectly fine holiday movie, but hopefully it's also just setting the scene for other, better movies in the sub-genre.