CS Visits the set of the gay holiday rom-com Happiest Season
It was February of 2019, but Christmas had come early to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the form of Happiest Season, and ComingSoon.net was there on location to take in the yuletide vibes for Clea DuVall’s second project in the director’s chair.
This proudly queer rom-com stars Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis as a lesbian couple, happily cohabitating in the hip neighborhood of Lawrenceville. With the holidays fast approaching, both are considering big steps in their relationship. Abby (Stewart) is planning to pop the question, and even bought a ring for the occasion. For the first time, Harper (Davis) is bringing her girlfriend home for Christmas. That could prove the perfect moment for a proposal–except Harper’s not out to her family yet. This throws Abby into the awkward spot of being the tag-a-long friend at family gatherings, and watching awkwardly as Harper’s parents (Mary Steenburgen and Victor Garber) push hard for her to reconnect with her high school beau Connor (Jake McDorman). Seasonal shenanigans ensue!
While there are been plenty of holiday-centered rom-coms, same-gender relationships have rarely been their focus. That, on its own, makes Happiest Season unique. This also made it personal to the film’s co-writer and director, Clea DuVall. Two days before the production wrapped, she sat down with a giddy band of reporters, all gathered together beside a Christmas tree in a wood-paneled restaurant outside of Pittsburgh, to share how this project came about.
“I love Christmas movies,” DuVall began. “I love how they become a part of our lives in a way that other movies just don’t. And I had never seen my experience represented, as a gay person and as someone who spent most of my holidays with other people’s families. I felt like it was a very rich space to play in.”
Stewart agreed heartily. In a paired interview with Davis, she spoke to how the levity inherent in the holiday rom-com genre is part of what attracted her to Happiest Season. “I loved the script. It felt like a huge relief,” the openly queer actress explained, “It felt like it didn’t feel obliged to be overwrought.”
While Happiest Season follows in a long-line of coming out stories, it stays true to the holiday mirth and doesn’t dig deep into the drama. “There’s no villain,” Davis shared, noting that Harper’s parents aren’t even homophobic. They just haven’t been “exposed” to her truth yet.
Stewart was elated about the film’s diversity, not only in representation but also in tone. “It doesn’t need to be all about how much it hurts to be unacknowledged, even though that’s an element of [of their story],” Stewart declared. “That’s what felt relieving about it,” she explained, “That it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, you poor, poor homos!‘”
With a twinkle in her eye and her signature crooked grin, Stewart added, “[Happiest Season] is a really beautiful love story — and a coming-out story — about two women that doesn’t exist yet…I would have been so jealous — and also very excited — to see it coming together without me. But I fucking belong here.”
Indeed she does.
DuVall brought together an incredible ensemble that boasts out and proud performers including Stewart, Victor Garber and Dan Levy (of the Emmy-dominating Schitt’s Creek). Of her casting choices, the lesbian writer/director said, “It’s been very important to me in this film to have all different kinds of representation: having gay actors playing gay roles, and gay actors playing straight roles, and straight actors playing gay roles. Having all of that — I think — is really important, because I’m also an actor who has played a lot of straight roles and gay roles and all kinds of different things. I really wanted to encourage that in my casting.”
She also brought queer representation into the background, calling for Pittsburgh’s LGBTQA+ community to come out for a big club scene to be shot on the film’s final day of production. “It takes place in a gay bar,” DuVall revealed of the yet-to-be shot scene, “And I would really like to have the community with us and supporting us and being a part of that specific scene. And then also, on our last day, I think it would be a really nice way to go out.” With a celebratory bang, as it were!
However, you need not be a part of the LGBTQA+ scene or versed on its culture to enjoy Happiest Season. Again and again, cast and crew stressed this is a story that is universal at its core.
Davis explained of Harper’s journey, “While it is definitely a coming out story, it’s also this coming-of-age story of having to unite your identity as a grown-up with your identity within your family unit, and how you have to regress a little bit before you can unite those two selves because your family might not be ready to accept your grown-up self.”
That arc is reflected in the threads of Harper’s older sisters Sloane and Jane, played by Alison Brie and Happiest Season co-writer Mary Holland. In an interview with Garber and Steenburgen, details were dropped about how each daughter is running up against the expectations of their parents. “So every single one of our daughters goes through a journey, and we go on a journey with them,” Steenburgen explained, noting, “It’s funny but when I really think of my own family, there’s a version of all of these stories woven in. Most of our families, we all have somebody who is scared to tell their truth of some story. And [there are] parents, who have cockamamie ideas about what life is supposed to be. There’s so much humor and truth to it.”
With a warm smile, Garber added, “There will be so many young kids who will affected by this in the right way, and say ‘I’m not alone.’ It doesn’t hit you over the head. It’s so sweet and kind, like a Christmas movie should be.”
The power of the Christmas movie is undeniable. Steenburgen has had a storied career, tackling many different genres and winning acclaim as well as an Oscar. Yet she told us the reactions she gets because of Elf are distinct. “I do love the genre,” she declared, “because you get different feedback from your fans and people about Christmas movies than anything else.”
“[Christmas movies are] often viewed as a family,” she continued, “People often have a tradition around it. And there’s something so lovely about that.” Steenburgen noted that she took pride in making Happiest Season as she did Philadelphia, a hard-hitting 1993 drama that challenged homophobia. “Seeing the impact that [movie] had on families that were not used to the idea of somebody being gay,” she said, “It was important to me to be in what I believe is the first holiday movie that has a gay couple at the center of it — as opposed to somebody’s brother-in-law or whatever.”
Finally, Holland spoke to her and DuVall’s hopes for how Happiest Season might be received. “We both really wanted to make a classic Christmas movie; one that would be accessible to everybody,” she explained. “I’m so thrilled that we do have that [LGBTQA+] representation because it is long overdue. I really hope that by making it relatable to all audiences that it will help instill that sort of acceptance and understanding and a broader conversation. We wanted it to be something that did that representation well, but then also it was just so fun and relatable for everybody.”
Happiest Season features an ensemble cast led by Stewart that also includes Mackenzie Davis (Irresistible), Mary Steenburgen (Zooey’s Extraordinary Playlist), Alison Brie (The Rental), Victor Garber (Legends of Tomorrow), Aubrey Plaza (Black Bear), and Dan Levy (Schitt’s Creek).
The story is written by Clea DuVall and Mary Holland (Animals.) and directed by DuVall in her studio directorial debut.
The project is produced by Marty Bowen (The Hate U Give), Isaac Klausner (Love, Simon) Jaclyn Huntling (The Maze Runner) for Temple Hill, with Hannah Minghella (The Talented Mr. Ripley) and Shary Shirazi (Star Wars: The Force Unleashed) having overseen the project for TriStar Pictures.