Nearly twenty-five years ago, The Birdcage was released to enthusiastic reviews. There were dissenters within the critical community, though, including at least one writer I remember who took great offense at the Mike Nichols–directed film mining comedy from gay men pretending to be straight in order to curry favor with close-minded conservatives. For the critic in question, it was a personal affront. He’d grown up as a gay male at a time when broader cultural forces made staying in the closet the most prudent choice, and he didn’t appreciate a big, glossy Hollywood comedy that hinged entirely on the premise of shoving someone like him back into shameful secrecy.
I thought of that old review when watching Happiest Season, the new Christmas romcom directed and cowritten by Clea DuVall. In the film, Harper Caldwell (Mackenzie Davis) impulsively asks her live-in girlfriend, Abby (Kristen Stewart), to accompany her home for the holidays. As they are on the last leg of the trek, Harper reveals that her parents aren’t aware that she’s in love with another woman, and she asks Abby to conceal their relationship, posing as her platonic roommate. They are a thoroughly modern couple, together in an era when same-sex couples are hardly a novelty, and the circumstances of an old-fashioned family forces them to regress to a lie.
DuVall’s seeming intent is to make as conventional of a holiday film as possible, with the hidden selves of the two leads driving the dramatic conflicts. There are also family dynamics at play — Harper is competitive with her sister Sloane (Alison Brie) and joins everyone else in the household with taking a thoughtlessly dismissive view of her sister Jane (Mary Holland, who cowrote the screenplay with DuVall) — and other intrusions from the past, all lending Happiest Season a familiar feel. There are jaunts for ice skating, bustling parties, and shopping trips to the mall, all to the melody of carols chattering on in the background. There’s little to no edge to the storytelling or the cinematic framing, DuVall demonstration aspirations more aligned with a colorful puffery of a Love Actually or Last Christmas. To DuVall’s credit, she imbues her film with far more easygoing charm than either of those exercises in contrived whimsy. The revolution is in the plainness.
If the public denial of same-sex love seems awkwardly retrograde, DuVall tries to address it directly. Shortly after Abby’s friend John (Dan Levy) comes swooping in to rescue her from the stifling, overly traditional domesticity of Harper’s family, he reminds her that everyone’s coming-out story is different, and there are still plenty of LGBTQ+ youth who speak their respective truths to loved ones only to be vilified and ostracized. Even if that provides a reprieve from one criticism against the depiction of the film’s core relationship, there are other discomforts with Harper’s treatment of her one true love that can’t be so easily erased, especially when the reminiscence of Riley (Aubrey Plaza), a focus of affection from Harper’s earliest romantic explorations, reveals that the behavior is not exactly new. That Riley quickly seems like a better, healthier prospective companion for Abby (and Stewart has real chemistry with Plaza to a degree she doesn’t with Davis) further unsettles the dynamic. But DuVall dutifully follows the rules of how this sort of story turns out, for better or for worse.