[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for Happiest Season.]
Hulu’s Happiest Season, the lesbian rom-com starring Mackenzie Davis and Kristen Stewart, has sparked some big conversation around one of its climactic scenes in the days since its November 25 release. Directed by Clea DuVall (Veep, Broad City), Happiest Season follows Pittsburgh-based couple Abby (Stewart) and Harper (Davis) as they travel back to Harper’s hometown to spend Christmas with her family. What Harper fails to mention until the couple is en route is the fact that she is still in the closet — something that completely upends Abby’s expectations of how this trip was going to go. A majority of Happiest Season‘s runtime shows Harper forcing Abby into a lie which puts her in the closet, too, and Abby watches as Harper pretends to be a version of herself she doesn’t quite recognize. Things come to a boiling point when, at a family Christmas party, Harper is outed by her sister and immediately denies she is gay as Abby watches it all go down. Abby, believing Harper would never betray her on such a deeply hurtful level, leaves the house to clear her head.
The moment is a shocking one for a few reasons. The first is that it rewrites the expectations of a traditional rom-com climax scene. Harper’s betrayal by publicly denying her relationship with Abby while Abby watches packs a heavier and more complex emotional punch than we might expect from a movie in this genre. But it’s also difficult to not feel empathy for Harper, who is suddenly forced to grapple with the revelation of her personal truth — something she deserved to share on her own terms, not have shared for her in a room full of strangers. There is no easy answer on whether Harper is free of any guilt in her impulsive reaction to deny she is a lesbian who is also dating Abby; this, DuVall contends, is the reason she wanted to have this scene play out as it does.
DuVall, who co-wrote Happiest Season with Mary Holland (who also plays Jane, Harper’s wacky sister with a heart of gold), based some of the events of the movie on her own past experiences as a once-closeted lesbian. Given this level of personal involvement, it’s only natural DuVall would be able to offer some insight into — as well as a defense of — Harper’s behavior in the climactic scene where she denies her identity to her family and in front of Abby.
“We all have our baggage, we all have our main triggers and our fight or flight responses,” DuVall explained to Indiewire in a recent interview, “and I think Harper is someone who was operating in this certain way for a long time. It’s this devastating moment where your instincts kick in and you realize that you have not come as far as you thought you have because you haven’t really confronted yourself. It’s a very humbling moment and something that I think we can all relate to, no matter what it is we’re overcoming. You don’t overcome it on the first try.”
DuVall continued, touching on the scene which immediately follows that tense family showdown. As Abby goes to clear her head, she is joined by her best friend, John (Dan Levy). As the two friends walk, talk, and process, John reminds Abby of his own coming out story and its not-so-happy outcome which bears similarities to Harper’s. The Happiest Season director explained, “I wrote this speech about coming out because I was thinking about how we can have compassion for Harper in that moment. She does do something that is pretty bad and I can see why an audience would be upset with her, but it’s also about wanting to have compassion for people who are going through that. Coming out is so different for everybody. For some people, it’s super easy and I think that’s great for them, but for a lot of people, it’s really not.”
Having seen Happiest Season twice since its Hulu release earlier this week, I can’t disagree with DuVall’s decision to write and shape this scene as she did. I’m not a fan of having Harper deny her sexuality, partially because it feels somewhat grotesque at that point in the movie and partially because it pushes me further into the “Abby and Riley should end up together” camp. (They should, TBH.) But who am I to say that when I have no idea what it feels like to be outed and forced to reckon with your sexuality on someone else’s timeline? It’s hard to know how you should feel about this Harper scene and Happiest Season offers no easy answers about how we should process it. What the movie nails — and this is supported by DuVall’s comments — is the honesty of how raw and fragile a moment like that is for everyone involved. No two coming out stories are alike, and Happiest Season seizes the opportunity to depict one version of this and turn it into a point of discussion. When was the last time a rom-com offered us the space to do that?
It’s a little complicated.
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