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'Happiest Season' Is Cinematic Comfort Food For The Holidays

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. For so many reasons, Christmas celebrations will be a lot different this year, and some traditional Christmas movies made before the pandemic will feature something new - more gay characters and romances at the center of the story. One such holiday release is "Happiest Season," a romantic comedy starring Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis. They play a lesbian couple trying to keep their relationship a secret during a family Christmas gathering. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: There's lots of reasons to like the holiday-themed romantic comedy "Happiest Season," my favorite being Kristen Stewart's wonderfully down-to-earth lead performance. It's great to see Stewart show off her deadpan comic chops while still retaining her gift for low-key believability. She gives this busy, endearing, not-always-subtle farce a quiet emotional core. Stewart plays Abby, a grad student who's in a deeply committed relationship with Harper, a journalist played by Mackenzie Davis.

Abby is planning to go home with Harper for the holidays and meet her family for the first time, figuring it'll be the perfect opportunity to propose marriage. In this early scene, Abby discusses her plans with her buddy John, played by the irrepressible Dan Levy, a recent Emmy winner for "Schitt's Creek." He's the gay protagonist's gay best friend, one of many rom-com conventions that "Happiest Season" cleverly recycles.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HAPPIEST SEASON")

DAN LEVY: (As John) Abby, you and Harper have a perfect relationship. Why do you want to ruin that by engaging in one of the most archaic institutions in the history of the human race?

KRISTEN STEWART: (As Abby) Because I want to marry her.

LEVY: (As John) OK. You say that, but what you're actually doing is tricking the woman you claim to love by trapping her in a box of heteronormativity and trying to make her your property. She is not a rice cooker or a cake plate. She's a human being.

STEWART: (As Abby) All right, it's not about owning her. It's about building a life with her. She is my person, and I really want everyone to know that.

LEVY: (As John) I suppose that's one way of looking at it.

CHANG: It's not until the couple are driving out to the suburbs that Harper drops a bombshell - she's never actually come out to her folks, and she begs Abby to pretend to be her roommate, at least through the holidays. Complicating matters is the fact that Harper's father, played by Victor Garber, is running for mayor of their hometown, and she can't do anything that would jeopardize his appeal to the family-values crowd.

Although "Happiest Season" never spells out anyone's political affiliation, the conservatism of Harper's wealthy family is pretty obvious. At one point, her mother, played by a breezily caustic Mary Steenburgen, makes a snide remark about gay people and their lifestyle choice.

Harper's parents are loving, but incredibly demanding, which seems to have negatively impacted all their children to some degree. That's why Harper's oldest sister Sloane, played by Alison Brie, is so ruthlessly competitive, flaunting her successful business and two young kids. By contrast, the lovably goofy middle child Jane is an aspiring fantasy novelist who's made peace with being her parents' least favorite. She's played by the comedian Mary Holland, who wrote the script with the director, Clea Duvall.

Duvall made her feature filmmaking debut a few years ago with an ensemble piece called "The Intervention." Audiences may also remember her breakthrough role in the 1999 gay conversion therapy satire "But I'm A Cheerleader." Twenty-one years after that indie favorite, some might find "Happiest Season" a little regressive on focusing on a smart, liberal-minded woman who feels the need to hide her sexuality. But the movie knows that coming out is something intensely personal, never more so than with family.

There's also the unfortunate fact that crowd-pleasers have always been slow to reflect social progress. A movie targeting the widest possible audience is, by definition, a little behind the curve. "Happiest Season" is being billed as the first studio-produced holiday rom-com centered on LGBT characters, a milestone that feels as though it should have been passed long ago.

The irony of this movie and others, like the 2018 gay teen comedy "Love, Simon," is that they break new ground by offering up cozy, comfortingly familiar pleasures. "Happiest Season" is chock full of traditional Christmas set pieces, from an ice-skating outing to a white elephant gift party, both of which go horribly wrong. The movie has a snappy one-liners, a few shticky running gags and throw pillow-heavy production design. Harper's family home is one of the more covetable pieces of cinematic real estate I've seen in a while.

It's all completely conventional, right down to that lump you may feel in your throat at the big emotional climax. But that conventionality, when seen from an underrepresented perspective, can suddenly look quietly radical. For all the broad comic shenanigans, the movie has two lead performances that are emotionally complex and consistent from moment to moment. Mackenzie Davis, who showed chameleonlike range in movies like "Tully" and the TV show "Halt And Catch Fire," is entirely believable as the intense, not-always-sympathetic Harper. By contrast, Abby's mellow go-with-the-flow vibe nicely modulates all the chaos swirling around her.

As always, you never catch Kristen Stewart acting, and you never tire of her company. It's not surprising when Abby, feeling neglected by Harper, forges a connection with Riley, who turns out to have been Harper's first girlfriend. Riley is played by the whip-smart Aubrey Plaza. And I have to admit that part of me wouldn't have minded seeing Abby and Riley get together and take off. A different movie might have gone that edgier route, rather than the sweet cinematic comfort food that "Happiest Season" turns out to be.

DAVIES: Justin Chang is film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed "Happiest Season," now streaming on Hulu.

On tomorrow's show, Terry talks with actor Hugh Grant, known for his roles in films such as "Four Weddings And A Funeral," "Bridget Jones's Diary," "About A Boy" and "Music And Lyrics." He's currently starring with Nicole Kidman in the HBO limited series "The Undoing." I hope you can join us.

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DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering help today from Diana Martinez. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.