But few experiences are universal, and the new movie “Happiest Season” presents a version of the story that, before this year’s crop of LGBTQ holiday fare, was rarely depicted on-screen. Directed by Clea DuVall, the Hulu release stars Kristen Stewart as a woman named Abby who accompanies her girlfriend, Harper (Mackenzie Davis), to her family home in the Pittsburgh area, only to learn on the way there that Harper hasn’t yet come out to her conservative parents.
DuVall, who is gay, co-wrote the film with Mary Holland (who plays Jane, one of Harper’s sisters) after years of hoping to see more queer Christmas movies come to fruition. There’s often an added sense of responsibility to being one of the most prominent, and “Happiest Season” bears the weight of Harper’s struggle to reconcile her actual identity with that of the daughter her parents seem to want. But DuVall points out that humor is also inherent to the film’s central debacle, which requires Abby to pose as Harper’s straight roommate.
“I’ve spent the majority of my Christmases with other people’s families, and it’s a very specific experience to be dropped into the middle of someone else’s family dynamic and to see your partner, who you think you know so well … revert back into this other version of themselves,” DuVall continues. “As much as there’s a very serious side of it, there’s also a lot of really awkward comedy that comes out of it.”
Some of the film’s funniest moments come from these uncomfortable situations, as highlighted by a running gag about Abby’s dead parents. Neither actress has a background in comedy, but DuVall sensed versatility to their dramatic work — also confirmed by Stewart’s hosting gig on “Saturday Night Live,” the director adds, where she got to be “free and funny and silly.” Stewart, a queer woman, notes that some jokes nearing cliche in her own life — the specific awkwardness of running into your girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend, for instance — feel fresh in “Happiest Season,” given how rare they are in a “commercial” comedy like this one.
“It’s so familiar to me that it’s, like, finally,” Stewart says.
DuVall and Holland reworked the script as each lead — plus a few supporting acts such as Mary Steenburgen, who plays Harper’s image-obsessed mother — came onboard. Some of Davis’s earlier conversations with DuVall centered on “the politics of being a straight woman taking this part,” the actress says. She pored over subreddits of coming out stories in preparing to play Harper and spoke to DuVall about her own experiences to better understand the character, with whom Davis admits to feeling frustrated at first.
Though Harper reassures a reluctant Abby that their charade is only temporary, she begins to neglect her as the film goes on and, as Abby says, pushes them further into the closet. Facing pressure from her parents and uptight sister Sloane (Alison Brie), Harper spends much of the visit hanging out with her ex-boyfriend (Jake McDorman) while Abby turns to Harper’s secret high school girlfriend (Aubrey Plaza) for support.
“I couldn’t understand how she was simultaneously so accomplished and so autonomous from her family at 30 years old, and also had completely compartmentalized her identity so she just became a different person when she went home,” Davis says. “[DuVall] was always on Harper’s side and really understood the forces that would lead a woman like this towards denying such a big part of herself.”
The tension comes to a head with a scene teased in the film’s trailer, in which Abby, who had planned to propose to Harper over the holidays, expresses how hurt she feels by Harper’s reluctance to tell her family the truth about their relationship. Harper responds, “I’m not hiding you, I’m hiding me.”
Stewart says she felt protective of Harper while reading the script, and that casting someone in the role who didn’t understand the delicacy of the situation would’ve been “so embarrassing.” She recognizes the necessity of preserving specific perspectives and making sure the right voices are heard, but adds that the question of authenticity often boils down to whether an actor truly grasps the character. Stewart came out in her early 20s, roughly a decade into her career: “So I couldn’t play gay before that? Or I can’t play straight now?”
“I rationalized so much homophobia in my life,” she continues. “All the words around gayness and queerness have always been bad words — all of that, it shapes you in some way. … It’s weird to put that in a rom-com. But if you do it with serious tenderness and awareness and concern, it doesn’t matter if you’re gay or straight.”
Maintaining the realness of Harper and Abby’s relationship ranked high for all three women, and Stewart praises DuVall for her ability to make “a true movie in a system that is difficult to do it in.” With so many external forces at play, the actress adds, the director “just protected her thing.”
“I think it’s really important to see a coming-out story where someone falls down, and they get back up and they’re okay,” DuVall says. “They still deserve to be loved, and they still can reach a place where they love themselves. That’s a really powerful message, and something that’s important for people to see.”