By Leah Greenblatt
November 19, 2020 at 02:55 PM EST
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Credit: Lacey Terrell/TriStar Pictures

There are Christmas stories for Star Wars and serial killers and reincarnated snowmen; a movie about a grown man who believes he’s an elf and eats jelly-bean spaghetti with his hands is (rightly) considered a modern holiday classic.

Somehow though, Hollywood hasn’t managed to produce a meaningful mainstream LGBTQ contender in all that until now. Which puts perhaps a disproportionate pressure on Happiest Season (on Hulu Nov. 25) to be everything to everyone, with bells on. What it does manage to pull off is actually pretty sweetly traditional in the end: a cozy rom-com with all the familiar trimmings — family dysfunction, awkward gifting, strained sleeping arrangements — and a queer Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner twist.

Grad student Abby (Kristen Stewart) and journalist Harper (Halt and Catch Fire's Mackenzie Davis), two impossibly cheekboned Pittsburgh millennials in love, have reached the point in their relationship where Harper wants Abby to meet the parents; what she hasn’t told her girlfriend is that Ted (Victor Garber) and Tipper (Mary Steenburgen) have no idea she’s gay.

Nor do Harper’s two sisters, the chipper, Jan Brady-ish Jane (Mary Holland) and type-A lawyer-turned-gift-basket-curator Sloane (Alison Brie) — or her high-school boyfriend (Jake McDorman), still holding out hope. The only ones who seem to know what’s going on beneath Harper’s elaborate hometown charade are Abby's best friend John (Schitt's Creek star Dan Levy, gratifyingly schitt-y) and the girlfriend Harper was far too terrified to acknowledge in high school (Aubrey Plaza, so wryly, perfectly bone-dry she deserves her own origin story).

Ted it turns out is running for mayor, so the appearance of familial harmony over the holidays is everything. Which means, naturally, that things must fall apart, methodically and spectacularly. There will be willful misunderstandings and rogue Roombas in the night; stolen kisses and petty thievery and a Christmas Eve party so off the rails that even the mistletoe looks like it wishes it could go into witness protection.

Writer-director Clea DuVall (The Intervention) isn’t immune to certain classic holiday-movie maneuvers: The snow-globe village of the setting is somehow both big enough for a giant mall and a drag bar but small enough to conveniently run into every ancillary character on the street. Various plot points veer off into slapstick or just quietly disappear. But she's also a successful working actress (Veep, The Handmaid's Tale) and low-key lesbian icon whose sensitivity to the material consistently pulls the best from her cast, a steady hand guiding them through both the universal insanity that is spending the holiday with one's family and more poignant, pointed takes on sexuality and identity.

Stewart and Davis are genuinely lovely together (if you can forgive Davis' wig), with Stewart in particular grounding her flailing, anxious Abby in both the natural comedy of the script and the real lasting hurt Harper does in her desperation to stay "perfect" in her parents' eyes. Whatever familiar moments of corniness or cliché Happiest might fall into along the way, they feel like quibbles for a movie that mostly just feels good: a smart, heartfelt comedy whose small flaws are easily blotted out by bigger charms. And isn't that a reason for the season, after all? Grade: B+

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