In his 2010 book How I Escaped My Certain Fate, the acerbic comedian Stewart Lee recounts a joke in which he calls himself, with deliberate perverseness, “an adopted man”. “The phrase ‘adopted man’ [is] funny,” he says, “because it suggest[s] the image of a fully grown man being delivered to a hopeful couple’s door, perhaps with his record collection and personal artefacts in tow.”
Evidently, the writer, actress and director Clea DuVall agrees with Lee – her second film, Happiest Season, a lesbian Christmas romcom with a soft note of sedition, makes one of its funniest running gags out of its heroine, Abby being not just an orphan but a fully grown orphaned woman.
Visiting her beloved, closeted girlfriend’s wealthy conservative parents over Christmas, she is forced to introduce herself as “Harper’s orphaned roommate”, her dead parents coming up in conversation as regularly as if she were a Dickensian urchin rather than a chic, cashmere-clad PhD student from Pittsburgh circa now. “This is Harper’s orphaned friend,” her girlfriend’s mother (Mary Steenburgen) says bluntly to her husband (Victor Garber), before pointing out to Abby that their spare room will at least be “better than your room at the orphanage”. “Oh, I wasn’t in an orphanage,” Abby replies, smiling politely. “I was 19 when my parents died.” Harper’s mother nods, widening her eyes: “Ah, one of the lucky ones!”
Billed as the first big-ticket gay romcom set at Christmas, Happiest Season is not art: it is not painterly and lush and full of distant, Sapphic longing like Todd Haynes’s perfect Carol, or like Celine Sciamma’s meticulous Portrait of a Lady on Fire. This is fine, since not all stories about lesbians need to be visually dazzling, heart-breaking romances filled with hoop skirts and dropped gloves and damp-eyed yearning, just as not all films about heterosexual couples have to be, for instance, Phantom Thread. Happiest Season is instead a warm, light-hearted festive romp, a sometimes melancholy trifle that asks “what if Meet the Parents had been 90 per cent gayer?”
[see also: David Fincher’s Mank sparkles like a Hollywood classic]
It cleverly turns a few of the enduring clichés of the genre on their heads – like many of the men in sappy movies, Abby plans to ask permission from her girlfriend’s father to propose – and adds new jeopardy by spinning queerer touches: she is not just fighting to convince Harper’s uptight parents that she is deserving of their daughter’s hand in marriage, but to make them understand that Harper (Mackenzie Davis) should be married to a woman, period. Luckily, Abby is played by Kristen Stewart, an inveterate fidgeter whose most seductive quality is her ability to at once seem entirely comfortable in her skin and uncomfortable around others. As evidenced by Olivier Assayas’s mysterious, spooky-gorgeous Personal Shopper, no actress is better suited to portraying standoffish and self-sufficient bereaved women: cool and deadpan on the surface, quietly roiling underneath.
Stewart often has the curious effect of making every other actor in a film look far too extroverted to be natural, her louche manner somehow pulling back the curtain on the entire enterprise – “These other people,” one thinks, irritably, “are only pretending to have feelings”. To her fans, it is this quality that has made her one of the most interesting actresses of the past decade; her detractors, vastly under- estimating the difficulty of being authentic in front of a film camera, gripe that she only knows how to be herself.
Playing Abby, and particularly playing Abby trying to seem straight, it’s true that she is adding something to the part by dint of being Kristen Stewart: the audience knows that Stewart was once half of one of the most famous heterosexual couples in the world, and that she had a reputation for being ungirly and sullen, and that eventually, in 2017, she used her opening monologue hosting Saturday Night Live to set things not-exactly-straight. “I’m like, so gay, dude,” she grinned back then, lifting her hand up to her mouth facetiously as if the audience were being let in on a shocking secret. (When Abby tells her gay best friend, played by Schitt’s Creek’s Daniel Levy, that she has been posing as a straight girl all weekend, his response mirrors that of Stewart’s die-hard queer fans in her earlier days of stardom: “Haven’t they ever seen a lesbian before?”) The audience’s knowledge of that coming out – cool and fearless, casual as hell – hangs over Happiest Season like a sprig of mistletoe, a playful dare to Davis’s frightened, gun-shy Harper.
Being “so gay, dude” never looked better than it does when Stewart is onscreen. There is, of course, a happy ending – an 11th-hour affirmation not just of the protagonists’ love but of Harper’s lesbianism. Is it pat, a little too sweet? Maybe. Still, nobody cared that much when everybody married their ex-lovers’ siblings in the last ten minutes of The Family Stone.
“Happiest Season” is on YouTube, Google Play and Amazon now and will be available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from 18 December
Happiest Season (12)
dir: Clea DuVall
This article appears in the 02 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Crashed