Happiest Season

Happiest Season ★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

There’s so much to recommend here that it’s beyond frustrating to report that the screenplay is one more rewrite away from being really, really good.

Do producers not give notes anymore? Everything that doesn't work is obvious and easily fixable. Brass tacks, the movie works way too hard grinding its gears to sell a fairy tale ending it doesn’t remotely earn.

All the ingredients simmer nicely: really strong, likable performances and Clea DuVall breezily nails the upscale holiday tone. The best compliment I can give her direction is it feels like an original, big budget, high concept studio comedy in a good way - the likes of which we haven’t seen in a long time. And fuck the haters, Kristen Stewart is a bona fide movie star.

Which makes it even more perplexing that the script stumbles as often as it does. The opening act is nearly seamless, then things unravel about halfway through as plot contrivances mount (shoplifting, really?) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis) becomes almost sociopathic.

I understand why Harper behaves the way she does, but DuVall and Mary Holland’s script needs to give us more of Harper’s POV earlier on so she doesn’t come off like a complete nightmare. Seriously, she outs her high school girlfriend and we’re supposed to forgive it with a handshake? The script is too centered on Abby, and Stewart is so winning in the role that it’s impossible not to side with Abby when Harper repeatedly lies and surprises her with stressful family traditions.

As Harper’s ex Riley, Aubrey Plaza is the best thing in the movie and its most refreshing (perhaps only) avoidance of cliche. At first I thought she’d be a jealous caricature dead set on tearing Harper and Abby apart, but instead she’s immensely nuanced and sympathetic.

If you ask me, HAPPIEST SEASON should have ended with Harper and Abby breaking things off so Harper can figure her shit out, then a year later Abby and Riley run into Harper, finally out with a new girlfriend.

But DuVall stubbornly insists on making Harper and Abby happen (never mind that Stewart has more chemistry with Plaza than Davis) and the climactic cycle of heartfelt revelations, tears, and quick acceptance feels forced and phony.

HAPPIEST SEASON could have had its cake and eaten it too: a bright/shiny/happy holiday rom com that bucks cliche at least a little bit, and it’s too bad the filmmakers couldn’t make that happen. They chose the easiest possible route for a film that could have been an unexpected game changer.

DuVall as director also has some trouble balancing the broad comic moments with their deeper human underpinnings. Shout out to Mary Holland though, who stealthily walks away with every scene as the third sister (and gets a really fun payoff to her storyline too).

I wish I could have seen this in a theater with a big crowd. I’m sure it would have been a solid hit and played through the holidays, and it’s exactly the kind of funny, heartfelt crowdpleaser you want to watch with an enthusiastic audience.

It’s just too bad DuVall and co. couldn’t work out their material’s very clear and very basic issues.

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