I am grateful to Clea DuVall for affording me the chance to imagine watchable versions of Happiest Season, if not the opportunity to watch the one actually streaming on Hulu. Setting aside the obvious event all good Seasons ought to share—Aubrey Plaza and Kristen Stewart collaborating to bring the rating up to at least R—I’ve watched many iterations in my own head:
- At the holiday party, every character played by a gay actor comes out at once. They have a dramatic, Go Fish-style argument where each takes a different position in Queer Discourse™.
- Harper’s (Mackenzie Davis) conservative father names at least one of his necessarily horrible positions at some point in the movie, and there’s a conversation with actual content. Jane (Mary Holland), the first daughter willing to cut ties with him over it, is the movie’s hero.
- Eric, Harper’s brother-in-law (Burl Moseley) runs off with John, Abby’s gay best friend (Dan Levy), taking Abby (Kristen Stewart) home with them. Eric dumps John, though they depart on amicable terms, when he realizes he needs to escape the whiteness of his former life as much as its heterosexuality. The bulk of the movie is about queer life in Pittsburgh.
- The same cast remakes The Philadelphia Story, with Stewart in Katharine Hepburn’s place, Plaza in Cary Grant’s, and Allison Brie in Jimmy Stewart’s.
I could have been tricked into watching any movie with this cast, and if it were 30% less infuriating, I might defend Happiest Season on the strength of Plaza’s gaze. But if I haven’t mentioned the actual plot yet, that’s because it’s a string of red flags on their way to the house where they’ll be strung up, and because I imagine everyone who was planning to see Happiest Season already has. In short: we learn that Abby and Harper exist, that they have a gay friend named John, and that Abby hates Christmas. Harper talks Abby into coming home with her for the holidays anyway, certain her girlfriend will love Christmas if they spend it together (at this point, I’m already hoping for an early scene breakup), but she fails to mention she’s closeted until they’re on the road. They attend holiday parties (which are also, for some reason, political fundraisers) and interact with Harper’s two sisters: Sloane (Allison Brie), the bitchiest, and Jane, the most tortured. Harper asks Abby to feign straight while she frequently disappears to help her evil father become mayor or to hang out with her ex-boyfriend. This leaves Abby alone for a series of humiliations, with the bright spot of getting to know Riley (Plaza), who reveals Harper treated her just as badly in high school. John comes to rescue Abby, but before they can escape, Sloane discovers Abby and Harper kissing; Abby, in turn, discovers Sloane’s husband kissing another woman. In an unpleasant attempt at a screwball fight scene, with decorative broomsticks and a Santa figurine as weapons, the sisters tumble into the main room of the party, where Sloane publicly outs Harper. Harper denies it; Abby, humiliated, temporarily abandons hope. In short: the Caldwell family sucks. As if in an inverted King Lear, the three sisters line up to tell them as much. Their complaints all boil down to their parents having been too controlling: Sloane felt pressure to pretend her marriage was happy, Harper to pretend she was straight, and Jane to measure up to their demands for success. After a good night’s sleep (and, for Harper and Abby, a confrontation outside of a gas station called “Love’s”), everyone reconciles.
DuVall chooses what I might call the “Love is Love” genre, where fidelity to that liberal tautology—the most we can ask of families, in this narrative tradition—produces a film incapable of specificity. While John argued that “Everybody’s story is different,” the film itself disagrees, showing that every family member shares some personal desire they’ve been suppressing for the sake of conformity. Romantic comedy typically requires that a couple’s love be exceptional, or at least something to root for, allowing them to overcome narrative obstacles that stand in for broader social struggles. Barring that, it should at least be hot. In Pursuits of Happiness, Stanley Cavell’s book on the remarriage comedy, he tracks a shift in the social forces from Shakespeare to George Cukor (the director of The Philadelphia Story, among others) that prevent protagonists from falling into each other’s arms:
Frye follows a long tradition of critics in distinguishing between Old and New Comedy: while both, being forms of romantic comedy, show a young pair overcoming individual and social obstacles to their happiness, figured as a concluding marriage that achieves individual and social reconciliations, New Comedy stresses the young man’s efforts to overcome obstacles posed by an older man (a senex figure) to his winning the young woman of his choice, whereas Old Comedy puts particular stress on the heroine, who may hold the key to the successful conclusion of the plot, who may be disguised as a boy, and who may undergo something like death and restoration. What I am calling the comedy of remarriage is, because of its emphasis on the heroine, more intimately related to Old Comedy than to New, but it is significantly different from either, indeed it seems to transgress an important feature of both, in casting as its heroine a married woman; and the drive of its plot is not to get the central pair together, but to get them back together, together again. Hence the fact of marriage in it is subjected to the fact or threat of divorce.
To follow the logic of Cavell’s progression, we might expect the contemporary queer romcom to put its lovers through some parallel social blockage. Happiest Season’s setup could even make for a good remarriage comedy, since, early on, we see the couple at odds, and their happy days precede the plot. The opening credits show a series of photographs with a paint filter and a lesbian temporality: from December wine to V-day roses, May birthday to September cohabitation, fading into the present, titular season, where Abby and Harper are on a Christmas walking tour. If they broke up in that early car ride, when Harper admits she’s driving Abby toward a trap, the movie might have had the chance to show why its main characters miss each other, letting the audience root for their reunion rather than for Abby’s rescue. In the romcoms Cavell raises to the level of a retroactive genre, both breakup and subsequent marriage are the result of a couple’s failure to comply with the given norms for love, where “the attempt at flight is forever transforming itself into . . . a process of pursuit.” Of course, it’s not queerness holding couples apart in 30s and 40s comedies, even if the best were directed by Cukor, famous for his Hollywood gay sex parties (and in Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby, there is a hiccup caused by Cary Grant’s character going “gay all of a sudden” when he dons a feather negligee). In each of these films, though, women try and fail to stay home (His Girl Friday and Adam’s Rib), adults try and fail to eschew childish pleasures (Bringing Up Baby, The Awful Truth), couples try and fail to love within their class (It Happened One Night). Part of the problem with Happiest Season is that Harper never tries, so there’s no catalyst for the persuasion of on-screen chemistry.
The Half of It, a recent, nearly perfect teen romance, gives its lovers more than denial to work against: it is money that pushes Ellie into the epistolary triangulation that leads her to reckon with love for another girl (Ellie needs to cover the electric bill, and a kind jock pays her to ghostwrite his love letters to Aster, with whom she’s secretly in love herself). Ellie’s queerness, her class, and her erudition collaborate to drive her out of town, but they are not the same. In D. A. Miller’s critique of Call Me By Your Name’s refusal to depict anal sex, he skewers the “mainstream gay-themed movie” for its elision of difference and its obligation to congratulate mere tolerance. In this reading, the movie doesn’t get it right until its final credits, where Elio (Timothée Chalamet) watches in agony while his supposedly open-minded parents congratulate his former lover on marrying a woman: “having been fucked, he is now being fucked over by the deep norms of a world where marriage sweeps all before it.” Todd Hayne’s Carol, on the other hand, is notable for not forcing its gay protagonists to imitate, as closely as possible, heterosexual success. When Carol tries to break things off with Therese, she admonishes this longing for closure as immature: “You seek resolutions and explanations because you’re young.” The resolution they do find—Carol giving up a difficult custody battle, agreeing to only see her daughter with supervision, because “what use am I to her, to us, living against my own grain?”—does not promise admission into the straight world. D. A. Miller quotes Guadagnino himself on his desire to “create a powerful universality” in Call Me By Your Name—the same desire that makes Harper’s final, public admission of lesbianism the equivalent of her sister’s divorce, at least in terms of the possible embarrassment to the family’s reputation. DuVall and co-writer Mary Holland have both explained their desire to make a gay romcom that would appeal even to homophobes: “I hope that we’re able to reach new people who . . . maybe have never seen this relationship and who have their own judgment or reservation.”
This is what makes for bad gay movies: when homos means “the same as all other sexualities.” When love is love, the central relationship is subjected only to the facts of the paramour’s denial and the parents’ possible phobia. Lesbians all have long hair, and social tensions dissolve when characters accept that they are generic. In Let it Snow, a 2019 Netflix indie comedy with a charming gay subplot, all of the pining, lonely high school seniors are rewarded with a partner when they break their analogous silences: I am gay; you are the person I’ve always loved, despite our being best friends; I do want to go to Columbia, though my mom is dying. Perhaps this trend was inevitable, since coming out fits so neatly into the romcom’s obsession with declaration. A New York Christmas Wedding is my favorite of recent examples, if only for the revelation that Chris Noth is at his best in the role of a Catholic priest challenging the church’s position on gay marriage. For Jennifer, the film’s main character, “the one who got away” is not just a woman she might have loved more than her male fiancé, but also a life where she never abandoned her Queens neighborhood for a rich partner, and where her father never died. All this can be regained by telling her guardian angel her preferences out loud (in an alternate timeline, created by the angel, who is an adult gay version of the stillborn fetus of the lead woman’s high school crush, that can only be realized with the angel’s never having been born).
While these movies all insist on false equivalence, Let it Snow and A New York Christmas Wedding at least give you some chance to understand why their heroines want to preserve the relationships that repression threatens. In Happiest Season, though, little motivates Abby to stick around, and less motivates Harper’s desire to stay on good terms with her family. If it were a question of keeping her inheritance, I’d welcome a queer romcom that went there, where directors of the 1930s often sent their beaus. The final montage is framed as the mother-in-law’s social media documentation of the family’s change-of-heart. There’s confirmation that Harper’s dad wins the election after all, an image of the mom’s first gay pride march (where Riley/Plaza is snuggled up with Clea DuVall), and Abby and Harper’s engagement photo (#en-gay-ged). An enterprising social media strategist claimed @tipper.caldwell last March, meant to attract viewers following this easter egg. It trolls Tipper by imagining her making a “Baby Yoda Macaron” (it is not lost on me that The Mandalorian offers a better model of chosen family than most of its queer contemporaries). This account hasn’t posted since the date the film came out—like Happiest Season, it had easy material to make work, but gave up.
I get why Happiest Season wants to disabuse me, even in a genre that promises happy endings, of the fantasy that familial homophobia is over. It breaks a recent rule for queer romcoms, like Love, Simon, where the love interest saying yes immediately renders the world safe, and it might even be refreshing if the end didn’t predictably guarantee everyone stays on good terms. The movie also borrows from that tradition, though, by insisting that there’s nothing special about lesbians, since the closet here is no different from the other lies rich WASPs tell themselves in exchange for comfort. In Ryan Murphy’s most recent hellscape, The Prom (a movie notable for managing to be worse than the state of Indiana, where it’s set), homophobia is given more diverse representation, but with the same low expectations: Broadway has-been Barry (James Corden) and high school student Alyssa (Ariana DeBose) each require a single sentence from their mothers to forgive them, whether the silence since the last fight lasted decades or a day.
One wall of Harper’s closet is her father’s campaign, and reviewers note that this plot might work if set in an earlier decade. It’s easier to imagine Harper simply knowing her dad hates dykes than her worrying about the effect of her “lifestyle” on his electability. Viewers of DuVall’s generation, at least, would remember Dick Cheney’s successful 2000 support of both his gay daughter and deeply homophobic public policy; politicians have always been allowed to love the sinners in their families—or, in Lady G’s case, to take up sodomy more directly—if it buys their commitment to legislative hypocrisy. When Harper’s mom mutters disapproval about Riley’s “lifestyle choice,” unaware she’s discussing her daughter’s ex-girlfriend, I initially assumed this was fodder for some coming dramatic irony, that they were disapproving of a benign element of Riley’s pre-med school career with language Harper would misread as a cue to keep quiet. At the fundraiser later, Harper’s father clarifies his role as a conversative protecting “family, tradition, and faith:” “These are turbulent times,” he warns, “and the way I can ensure depravity doesn’t seep in through the cracks of our community is by making sure there are no cracks.” The Caldwells are not naïve parents kept in the dark, but bigots directly channeling “build the wall” slogans to secure opacity.
Sophia Le Fraga, poet and expert on the lesbian romcom, is skeptical of my argument that directors flatten experience when they universalize love. At our virtual Carol viewing party, I consulted Le Fraga and her fiancée, Natasha Dubash, on whether love might be love, after all. Le Fraga offered a useful correction: what’s frustrating about the love is love romcom isn’t the equation itself, but its intended audience. The pretense of universality, and perhaps the dramatic speech act of “coming out” itself, exists exclusively to make gay sex more palatable to straight people. We joked, over drinks, at naming queer specificity—“Is it gay to be on the phone?” we considered, watching Carol whisper Ask me things while she holds a cigarette up to the handset—and we worried about accidentally reprising decades of queer theory in trying to identify sexual preference by something other than fucking. In The Price of Salt, this insistence on queer difference even stands in the way of Therese’s self-discovery: “She had heard about girls falling in love, and she knew what kind of people they were and what they looked like. Neither she nor Carol looked like that.” They agreed that Happiest Season is extremely white; Le Fraga accurately suggested I just watch San Junipero to see Mackenzie Davis in a more satisfying gay role; Dubash suggested I was expecting too much from a Christmas romcom, and perhaps too much from families.
But I still feel this sexless movie is committed to the drabbest vision of loves’ similarities. People certainly do stay with partners who treat them like shit, so long as they can tell themselves the shit has its origin in trauma; they often commute home for Christmas to families who insist on torturing them with confinement in a diorama of childhood; they regularly fail to take even the most appealing and available escape routes, and they call themselves lucky when they convince the worst people in their lives to be a little bit nicer. Our unhappiness, contrary to the Tolstoy, doesn’t distinguish us any more than our pleasures do. I’d be down for the Douglas Sirk-style melodrama of this aestheticized suffering, but to make it funny, you need more than a bizarre repetition of references to Abby’s being an “orphan.” I imagine Happiest Season’s original purpose was to subtract two hours from the time one might otherwise spend talking to straight family over the holidays, so its reception probably isn’t helped by its real audience of pandemic group texts. But if we have to watch queer romcoms that insist all love is alike, at least let lesbians enjoy a little of the satisfaction the 90s gave Hugh Grant. Dan Levy has two jobs in Happiest Season: to reprise Rupert Everett’s role in My Best Friend’s Wedding, giving false hope his on-screen bff will end up single and dancing with him, and to deliver the lines that justify why she won’t. As the audience hopes for Abby to walk away, he’s there—having established his credentials early as the film’s cynic by rolling his eyes at marriage—to remind us that though it gets better, it still sucks.
If queer romcoms need to prioritize letting straight viewers find themselves in the story, they can opt for a happier reversal: Precisely because this love is unfamiliar, I recognize it, I see now that love is always a state of exception. Cue San Junipero’s final scene, where “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” plays over Kelly and Yorkie starting their VR afterlife together. In the early 80s, James Baldwin imagined a future where our reckoning with universal love—that “there’s nothing in me that is not in everybody else”—also renders coming out obsolete, since calling oneself gay is to answer a “false argument, a false accusation.” I confess a preference for what’s marked out as queer (Baldwin’s own prose style, say), even if that mark is only legible as a product of society’s cruel regulations. Carol, for example, understands that a queer love interest is someone “flung out of space”—a line directly from Patricia Highsmith, herself a bizarre, snail-loving, offensive bisexual—but Happiest Season takes great pains to demonstrate that Abby is just the well-bred, educated, traditional partner that a girl’s parents would like, albeit appearing in an unanticipated gender. With their objection the only obstacle, the movie can comfortably abandon its pretense to queerness the moment they relent.
DIANA HAMILTON is the author of The Awful Truth (Golias Books) and God Was Right (Ugly Duckling Presse).