On screen, Kristen Stewart has battled deep-sea monsters, kissed vampires and werewolves, and texted with the ghost of her dead brother. But somehow, a holiday rom-com feels like her boldest movie yet.
“Happiest Season” (streaming on Hulu) is the first same-sex Christmas rom-com produced by a major studio. Stewart plays the patient and considerate Abby, whose girlfriend, Harper (Mackenzie Davis), invites her to her family’s house for Christmas. But it’s only in the car ride over that Harper reveals she hasn’t actually come out as gay to her conservative parents (Victor Garber and Mary Steenburgen), and Abby gamely pretends to be Harper’s straight roommate during their squeamish and high-ijinks-filled visit.
As a fan of both Christmas movies and rom-coms, Stewart, 30, was drawn to the fact that “Happiest Season” leaned into familiar tropes of both genres, but with a lesbian couple at its center.
“I was like, ‘Oh, my God, these are jokes that are so familiar to me because they’re between two girls in a funny situation, but I’ve never seen that in a movie,'” Stewart says. “It really is just a nice Christmas movie, and hopefully people can see how radical that is. It’s like, if you follow all the rules and do a gay version, it actually is kind of the most audacious you can be.”
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“Happiest Season” is directed and co-written byactress Clea DuVall, known for playing lesbian characters in the 1999 satire “But I’m a Cheerleader” and TV’s “Veep” and “Broad City.” The film is inspired in part by DuVall’s own experience coming out to her mom at Christmas, but also going home for the holidays with significant others.
“I drew a lot on the discomfort that comes out of pretending to be someone’s friend when you know you have a much deeper relationship than that,” DuVall says. Making a Christmas movie felt like a great way in to larger themes of love and acceptance, “because I thought it’s very relatable for a lot of LGBTQ+ people. Going home with your partner’s family, whether people know you’re together or not, is always a very specific kind of experience.”
Throughout the film, which boasts a 91% fresh rating on review site Rotten Tomatoes, DuVall manages to capture uniquely queer nuances with both humor and tenderness. Cornered by her high-school friends at a party, Harper feels pressure to act more “straight” and lightly flirt with an ex-boyfriend (Jake McDorman). Abby and Harper sneak between each other’s bedrooms to steal a kiss or intimate conversation, and panic whenever Harper’s parents knock on the door.
Growing up, Garber could relate to “that level of secrecy, the shame of being gay and how that can destroy lives,” he says. Years later, when his dad finally acknowledged Garber’s sexuality, “I completely broke down. It meant more than I realized.”
Harper doesn’t come out to her parents until she’s 30, “which to some people might sound a little late,” Stewart says. But the movie dispels that notion in a heart-wrenching conversation between Abby and her gay best friend, John (Dan Levy), who reminds her that everyone should be able to come out on their own terms and in their own time.
Because of recent strides for LGBTQ rights and representation, “we so quickly forgot how hard of an experience (coming out) can be,” Stewart says. “But it is impossible to not react to the words ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ being used in a negative connotation. Even as somebody who had a fine coming-out story – really easy, very lucky – that doesn’t mean you’re just exempt from growing up going, ‘Wait, am I kind of disgusting or something? My family told me they love me, but the world doesn’t necessarily feel that way.'”
Stewart publicly came out as queer in 2017 when she was 26, and has since played LGBTQ characters in 2018’s “Lizzie” and last year’s “Charlie’s Angels.” She says that living openly as a queer person has opened doors for her artistically, informing the types of projects she wants to make and who she chooses to work with.
“Honestly, every single day I get older, I feel like I know myself more and I’m more desirous of other people seeing that,” Stewart says. “As an actor, I want to really find myself and show it. Even the word ‘acting’ implies there’s some sort of lying going into it, but for me, I’ve enjoyed telling stories and coming together with like minds in a way that definitely has only been amplified by being honest about who I was in public.
“Even though to be honest, I wasn’t lying before,” she continues. But “the closer you get to yourself and the more you share it with others, the more prosperous, emotionally speaking, your life is going to be.”
With “Happiest Season,” it was crucial not to “tokenize” Levy’s character as the catty gay friend, but instead portray him as an intelligent and engaged human being, Stewart says. She also wanted to make Abby an “aspirational” character for LGBTQ viewers, in how she dressed and felt confident in her own skin.
“Playing queer characters and consuming queer content, it’s OK that it feels fringy and scary and anxiety-ridden, but that’s not our whole lives,” Stewart says. “It’s really important just to allow people to lean into the joy of (being gay), and I think that’s also encouraging for people that might feel alienated or confused. I reap the benefits of a very embodied and free gay experience, but not everybody has that.”
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