Clea DuVall, the actress best known for her roles in 1998’s The Faculty, 1999’s But I’m a Cheerleader, 2012’s Argo and the second season of American Horror Story, hops in the director’s chair for her sophomore directing effort, the holiday rom-com Happiest Season. Season was co-written by DuVall and co-star Mary Holland, and stars Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Dan Levy, Victor Garber and Mary Steenburgen.

Season tells the story of Abby (Stewart) and Harper (Davis), a couple who spends Christmas with Harper’s uptight family in a small, conservative Pennsylvania town. Harper’s family includes father Ted Caldwell (Gaber), a current mayoral candidate, perfectionist mother Tipper Caldwell (Steenburgen), eccentric sister Jane (Holland) and competitive sister Sloan (Brie). As Harper introduces Abby to the Caldwell family there’s a big issue that lingers over the holiday – none of the Caldwells know Harper is gay. In lieu of that, Abby and Harper must hide their romantic relationship by having Abby pose as Harper’s friend and roommate.

With eggshells scattered everywhere Abby turns, she quickly becomes a family pariah as Harper’s ex-boyfriend, Connor (Jake McDorman), appears, through Ted and Tipper’s urging; and Harper’s first girlfriend, Riley (Plaza), also returns home for the holidays. With Abby feeling increasingly alone, while Harper acting weird and distant, things will obviously come to a messy, hilarious and intense conclusion. Will Harper and Abby survive the holidays?

DuVall wanted to make Happiest Season an all-inclusive film that departed from the typical rom-coms. The obvious change is Abby and Harper’s same-sex relationship, an often-underrepresented group in rom-coms. DuVall and Holland, though, respect the genre enough to provide many of the tropes viewers come to expect in rom-coms – secrets, misunderstandings and wild assumptions. Positing all those within a story of a daughter terrified of revealing her secret to her family for fear of being ostracized and, more immediately, to avoid jeopardizing dad’s campaign, makes for plenty of hijinks. DuVall, though, keeps Season light until she absolutely needs to make that sharp turn towards drama. Season is all the better for it because of how deftly DuVall handles the situations she places both Abby and Harper in.

Stewart is fantastic as Abby - she needed to come with perfect comedic timing and then switch gears to shoulder the more emotional scenes. Stewart handled that well, especially since Abby is loosely based on DuVall.

Opposite Stewart is Davis, who’s grown as an actor over the years. Davis made her mark in Tully and Terminator: Dark Fate, but she caught DuVall’s eye in The Martian. Davis brought to life Harper's dual personalities – at one time, the loving and caring girlfriend to Abby; at other times, the obedient and hetero daughter of a “perfect” family. That’s difficult to juggle, but Davis made what could've easily been a disliked character an endearing portion of Season.

Stealing the show is Dan Levy, best known for his hilarious work on Schitt’s Creek. Levy plays Abby’s gay best friend, John. With this being a rom-com, most would expect John to be typically flamboyant comic relief, but DuVall and Holland use John more discreetly (although John still came with plenty of witty one-liners). Even though it’s a bit role, John is the glue holding everything together and he’s crucial to Season’s third act.

With a running time of 102 minutes, Happiest Season has its lulls. But it is a funny and entertaining tale of how the holidays are built upon a foundation of love in its many forms. DuVall and Holland are excellent in making Season appealing for all viewers while providing better representation. It’s a movie I can see myself watching every holiday because of how it deals with serious matters in a gentle, respectful manner. In short, Happiest Season is a terrific, modern Christmas film that provides emotional presents for everyone. Check it out if you want your season to be a happier one.

Happiest Season is currently available on Hulu. 

4 stars out of 5


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