Some people approach the holidays with far too much emphasis on expectation — everything must be just so, and God forbid any little detail goes awry — rather than simply basking in the comforting glow of seasonal spirit.

 

When Harper (Mackenzie Davis, left) and her family decide to hit the
local ice-skating rink, she doesn’t think to ask if her lover, Abby
(Kristen Stewart) knows how to skate.

Add a supplementary “important” reason for gathering, and the pressure becomes enormous.

 

(And the stuff of countless Christmas movies.)

 

Abby Holland (Kristen Stewart) has suffered the Christmas blahs ever since losing her parents a few years back. Hoping to cure this, her lover Harper Caldwell (Mackenzie Davis) impulsively insists that Abby come along for a family celebration in her home town. Warming to this suggestion, Abby decides it’ll be the perfect time to meet Harper’s folks, and then propose to her on Christmas morning.

 

Ted Caldwell (Victor Garber), in turn, wants his entire family present during the few days leading up to Christmas, as a picture-perfect “showcase” to help fuel his run for town mayor.

 

Except …

 

Ted’s family is far from perfect. Harper’s younger sister Jane (Mary Holland) is an aggressively giddy nerd with no concept of social boundaries, who constantly babbles about the epic fantasy novel she has been writing for the past 10 years. Perfectionist mother Tipper (Mary Steenburgen), although polite to a fault, insists on recording everything for her new social media presence.

 

Snooty elder sister Sloane (Alison Brie) and her husband Eric (Burl Moseley) abandoned their law careers in order to craft custom-made gift baskets. (Correction: Sloane archly calls then “curated gift experiences inside of handmade reclaimed wood vessels.”)

 

On top of which … little problem … Harper confesses, during the drive from Pittsburgh to her family’s upstate Pennsylvania town, that she hasn’t yet come out to her parents.

 

Despite having told Abby that she did so, quite a few months back.

 

And, well, y’know, now probably isn’t the best time, given Dad’s mayoral run, and their community’s conservative values. So how ’bout you just pretend to be my straight roommate?

 

At which point, a gal with even an ounce of common sense and self-esteem would bolt from the car, and hitch a ride back to Pittsburgh. (But then we’d have no movie.)

 

Play all of this too broadly, and the result would be insufferably burlesque. To her credit, director Clea DuVall — who also co-wrote the script with Holland — minimizes sitcom-style exaggeration. Granted, most of these characters — notably all three Caldwell sisters — are slightly exaggerated archetypes who tend to exist only in movies.

 

But the film and story are anchored solidly by Stewart’s surprisingly strong and nuanced performance. As this five-day visit becomes an interminable barrage of small (and large) slights, accidental and intended, Abby slowly succumbs to quiet heartbreak. Stewart makes it persuasive and palpable. We want to reach into the screen and throttle Harper, for being so thoughtless, clueless and — yes — bloody cruel.

 

Pretty much on her own, Stewart elevates this film from a Christmas-themed trifle to a study of genuine romantic angst. DuVall and Holland deal with serious relationship issues here, and they have a credible sense of the wounds we unintentionally inflict upon those we love.

 

Stewart isn’t alone; the story also gains dramatic heft from a similarly grounded performance by Aubrey Plaza, as Harper’s first, long-ago girlfriend Riley. Abby latches onto her with the desperation of a drowning victim clutching a life preserver, and their subsequent bonding is quite touching. Plaza’s quiet handling of Riley is deeply poignant.

 

Dan Levy — strikingly similar in appearance to his father, Eugene Levy — supplies dry wit and well-timed verbal zingers as Abby’s best friend John, co-opted into handling her pet-sitting duties during her five-day absence. He fancies himself a relationship guru, and checks in constantly via phone and text, growing increasingly worried about her plight.

 

Jake McDorman is aw-shucks charming as Connor, the ex-boyfriend (!) Harper dated for a time, in order to appear “normal” to her parents. Garber shades Ted as a man playing a role — that of mayoral candidate — and somewhat oblivious to his family; Steenburgen’s Tipper is charm personified, with a smile that could light the entire town.

 

Davis delicately navigates her very difficult role. On the one hand, Harper’s quality time with Abby — early on, during a walking tour of DuBoistown’s Candy Cane Lane — is giddy with mutual affection; you can’t imagine two people being more in love. But Harper’s later behavior, increasingly self-centered, seems unacceptably insensitive, if not outright mean-spirited; can this really be the same woman?

 

It’s a hazard, in stories of this nature: We worry that Harper’s conduct will escalate to the point that she no longer deserves redemption.

 

Or Abby.

 

These romantic hijinks are complemented by a captivating set of familiar Christmas covers and original, holiday-themed songs by LGBTQ pop artists such as BAYLI, Tegan and Sara, Sia, Bebe Rexha and Shea Diamond. (This artistic decision is right on the nose, given that Diamond admitted, when interviewed for this film, that “a lot of us don’t feel comfortable going home during Christmas.”)

Happiest Season, a Hulu original, is by no means perfect, but — ultimately — its core message resonates. And it delivers what we desire from Christmas-themed movies.

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