Happiest Season brings the laughs as it questions the weight of expectations around Christmas

Happiest Season (M, 102 minutes)

3 stars

Tis the season, as a walk through any local shopping centre will tell you. The season for your local mall to get their tinsel out. The season for family expectations to begin to weigh on you. The season that strains relationships and bank accounts to their limit.

Dan Levy and Kristen Stewart star in Happiest Season. Picture: Sony

Dan Levy and Kristen Stewart star in Happiest Season. Picture: Sony

This seasonal comedy by Clea Duvall particularly addresses that weight of family expectation.

Only when they're in the car and on the way to her childhood home for Christmas with the family does Harper (Mackenzie Davis) tell her girlfriend Abby (Kristen Stewart) that Harper didn't actually come out to her family as she had previously reported.

Adding insult to injury, Harper asks her very "out" girlfriend to place herself back in the closet for the holiday, to pretend that they are only flatmates.

Harper says she loves her girlfriend, but her dad Ted (Victor Garber) is running for mayor in their local election and his campaign doesn't need any controversy to derail it.

With Abby sleeping in a spare room in the basement, she is exposed to Harper's oddly perfection-obsessed family, with mum Tipper (Mary Steenburgen), younger sister Jane (Mary Holland) and older sister and fiercest rival Sloane (Alison Brie) all judging Harper's new "room-mate" and tolerating her intrusion on their family time.

An unexpected solace to Abby at a handful of painful social events is Harper's secret high school-era girlfriend Riley (Aubrey Plaza), particularly as Harper's parents keep constructing reasons to invite over their daughter's old boyfriend Connor (Jake McDornan).

At the other end of Abby's phone across the awkward holiday crisis is her gay bestie John (Dan Levy), offering sage advice.

Writer-director Clea Duvall has made a strong transition from on-camera to behind it. Her career as an actor is stellar, leading quality series like Carnivale, recurring roles in The Handmaid's Tale, Veep and American Horror Story, and roles in iconic films like Can't Hardly Wait and Girl, Interrupted.

Her screenplay is very funny throughout, particularly every line delivered by Mary Steenburgen giving the kind of passive aggression that only a mother can effect.

"If only you'd wear concealer," she tells her daughter straight after complimenting her beauty.

Whatever the original etymology of the term "in the closet", I have had my fair share of time there. I mean literally a handful of times in my younger days, being pushed into one with an "Oh no, mum's home", or variations of the same. I've met the family of at-the-time partners to be introduced as "my friend" or "my flatmate" so I can assure you that Duvall's script is rooted in reality.

The roles for Levy and Plaza cleverly unpack the sad truth of difficult family relationships for queer youth, and adults too. They get most of the film's sweeter moments, and they're up to it. Dan Levy brings to the role the weight of his achievement with positive queer representation from Schitt's Creek.

It's another positive move having a big-budget holiday season telling queer stories, and led by the now iconic Kristen Stewart, long moved on from her lip-chewing Bella of Twilight fame.

The rest of the cast have great moments, particularly Mary Holland playing awkward sibling Jane. Holland co-wrote the screenplay with Duvall, so she's written herself a great part.

Alison Brie plays probably the grown-up version of her perfection-pursuing character from Community. The sub-plot about her and Burt Moseley's separating married couple rings true, but the intense competitive sibling rivalry her character feels for Harper is very familiar.

The film does take a moment to settle into its rhythm, with earlier scenes lacking pacing, with noticeable beats that await the audience laughter to pass. But, thanks to COVID, the audiences aren't really there.

RuPaul's Drag Race fans will be exited by the drag bar scene with a song belted out by Jinx Monsoon and Ben De La Creme, with Kristen Stewart and Aubrey Plaza joining in.

A film about coming out and owning up to who you are, it should be noted that much of the coming out isn't the queer characters; it's as much about people in relationships, friendships, families, actually communicating with each other. The film is full of all the right messages we need to hear at this time of year, and during this year in particular.

This story Perfect for the 'coming out' season first appeared on The Canberra Times.