HAPPIEST SEASON (2020) is full of emotion and festive joy with a scene-stealing performance from Aubrey Plaza

December has arrived and nothing brings the holiday vibes better than an entertaining, joyful Christmas movie – which this is! Written and directed by Clea DuVall, Happiest Season is a lot more than just a Christmas film – there are multiple layers to the story that elevate it beyond being just a generic festive romantic comedy.

The heartfelt story follows Abby (Kristen Stewart) who decides to go to her girlfriend’s family home for Christmas and introduce herself to the parents, however, things don’t go as well as planned. Clea DuVall has strung together a story that brings everything from pure Christmas joy to tears – a rollercoaster of heartwarming and heartbreaking moments that finds a borderline balance of the two. The success and enjoyment of this story comes from the journey more-so than the conclusion. It’s one of those instances where you can read the room and make an educated guess on the way things will plan out, however, the journey to get to that ending is by no means a predictable one. There are little turns and surprises in the story – some narrative and some comedy-based – that give you the impression things may not be going the way you think. It’s these moments that take away the predictability of the story and just have you focusing on what’s happening in the moment – taking in both the comedic and heartfelt beats.

I mentioned that balance of heartwarming and heartbreaking moments and how it’s more of a borderline balance. What this is referring to is that this emotion-heavy story could almost be too heavy for some. Some of the characters in here take a tonne of gut punches (not literal) over the course of the film, almost to the point of bringing more tears than uplifting beats. For me, the film brings enough joy through the Christmas setting and the positive messages it spreads that it trumps the moments designed to make you feel for the characters, but it is one or two poor decisions away from toppling over.

My biggest quarrel is just that the ending felt a little rushed. There is a pivotal moment that indicates the last 15 minutes is going to be another crazy rollercoaster – but it’s all over within five. I like the way things ultimately play out, but certain elements could have and probably should have been fleshed out a little more, especially considering the scale of what happens.

As far as the performances go, there are so many shining lights in here that I don’t even know where to start. I’ll kick off with Kristen Stewart who is amazing in the lead role. The raw emotional strength of her performance is seen through pretty much every one of her scenes, to where she really embodies whether the tone of the story is more upbeat or emotional. Her line delivery and subtle facial expressions when the character is in stressful situations is brilliant, really elevating the film. Alongside her is Mackenzie Davis who is also a powerhouse actress, really doing a lot with her character to depict the inner conflict she is going through at key moments.

The real surprises come with the strength of the performances from the supporting roles – where almost everyone really shows up to play! Alison Brie and Mary Holland play two of Mackenzie Davis’ sisters and they’re both great in their respective roles – basically playing two polar opposites who each bring something unique. Then there’s Dan Levy who, to no surprise, is a favourite as the gay best friend – bringing some bursts of light comedy and also contributing to the heart of the story. At the top of the list is Aubrey Plaza who absolutely steals the show. Her scene-stealing capabilities are in full force here – enhancing both the comedic and emotional elements. She plays a role in a few quite joyful scenes and also drives some of the more emotional scenes through a very subtle, composed performance. For a role where she’s not constantly dropping jokes, Aubrey is damn-right incredible.

In the end, Happiest Season is a great queer romantic comedy, well directed by Clea Duvall, and an incredible way to kickstart the “happiest season” of all. Highlighting some beautiful messages that push through an emotional rollercoaster of a story to deliver something joyful – it’s an engaging narrative that takes steps to make it not as straightforward as other romantic comedies. It could be seen as being a little light on the comedy, but it fits with the tone established early on which prioritises emotional storytelling over throwaway silliness. With a stellar lineup of performances and scene-stealer Aubrey Plaza, this is one festive rom-com to check out.

7.9/10

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