When I moved to New York six years ago, I could count on one hand the number of people who knew I was gay. A few of my family members had a smattering of the truth, but as a born-and-raised Midwesterner, I figured something like that was better…kept to myself. Then, just days after I’d situated a lumpy brown futon mattress on the floor of my college friend’s Lower East Side studio and started my minimum-wage fact-checking internship, I fell in love. I went from a mostly closeted 22-year-old to the kind of person who couldn’t wait mention my girlfriend in conversation.
For the next six months, even acquaintances knew I was deeply in love. I brought my girlfriend to the one Super Bowl party and graduation celebration I was invited to during the time we were together, as well as a handful of birthday gatherings. I was happy to be out as long as I had her with me, but when it ended—and my brain stopped spinning from the breakneck pace of first love and the piercing, unrelenting grief of first-love breakup—I realized I didn’t know how to be out by myself. Without my beanie-wearing, tattooed dreamboat of a girlfriend by my side, I felt about as lumpy and uncomfortable as my futon. The worst part was, I couldn’t imagine a future where I wouldn’t feel that way.
Finally, months into my singledom, I wandered into the Cubbyhole, a legendary queer spot in Manhattan’s West Village, and into the breakup party of someone I knew only tangentially. Ten minutes into that party, I met Hannah, who’d moved to the city around the same time as me, and with whom I found myself discussing every detail of my lonely queer existence. “Wait, you went through a breakup, just came out, and you don’t have a therapist?” she asked, sliding onto a stool at the bar. By the end of the night, I’d found a queer bar where I felt safe, a therapist, and an invaluable friend. Hannah actually saved my life, and eventually, she introduced me to the person I’m marrying next June.
The kind of solace I found within my queer family rarely takes center stage in rom-coms. But you will find a story similar to mine in Happiest Season. The primary love story, between Abby (Kristen Stewart) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis), in the second film Clea DuVall has directed, is my least favorite part of this movie. If you’re someone who has ever struggled with coming out, it’s really hard to see Harper invite her girlfriend of more than a year to her family’s home, knowing full well she’s not out to her family. It’s even harder to see her tell Abby, while they’re en route to said family gathering, that she’d been lying about being out. (However, I will say the scene of the two women processing this revelation in the car on the side of the road was an excellent punchline to a well-executed lesbian joke.)
Harper, who spends the entire movie throwing her perfect angel girlfriend (who’s planning to propose, by the way) back into the closet alongside her family’s discarded holiday decorations, doesn’t quite earn the credit of ideal love interest. That belongs to the people who spend the entire movie propping up Abby every time Harper delivers another devastating blow. The real love story of Happiest Season is the one about the families we choose when the people we expect to be there for us aren’t.
Harper’s secret high school girlfriend, Riley (Aubrey Plaza), who’s spent years dealing with the emotional garbage Harper heaped on her in her own shame, takes Abby for a drink after she gets disinvited to a holiday party. Riley is also the one Abby calls when it seems like Harper would rather spend time with her interesting-as-cottage-cheese ex-boyfriend, and she even takes Abby on a cute friend date to a drag show featuring real-life queens BenDeLaCreme and Jinkx Monsoon.
John (Dan Levy), who steals the movie with his David Rose-like charm and dry wit, comes to rescue phone call after phone call from Abby, until he literally drives to Harper’s parents’ house to deliver her from the heteronormative hellhole in which she’s trapped.
“Hey, Harper not coming out to her parents has nothing to do with you,” he reassures a heartbroken Abby as she’s about to break up with Harper. “My dad kicked me out of the house and didn’t talk to me for 13 years after I told him. Everybody’s story is different. There’s your version and my version and everything in between. The one thing that all of those stories have in common is that moment right before you say those words when your heart is racing and you don’t know what’s coming next. That moment’s really terrifying. And then once you say those words, you can’t un-say them. A chapter has ended and a new one’s begun, and you have to be ready for that. You can’t do it for anyone else. Just because Harper isn’t ready doesn’t mean she never will be, and it doesn’t mean she doesn’t love you.”
“I want to be with someone who is ready,” Abby says, as John pulls her into a firm hug.
This is the kind of reassurance and anchoring we can only get from our queer community. These are the people who’ve been through the muck and mess that comes with being vulnerably themselves. These are the people who, like Hannah did for me, pull up a stool at the bar, hand us a napkin to dry the tears we’ve been crying for months, and write down the name of a therapist on another. I can’t stress how much Harper needs a Hannah—or more character development, so I wouldn’t be rooting for Abby and Riley to get together at the end of this movie. I can’t stress how much anyone—whether you’re secure in your sexuality or struggling to say it out loud—needs a Hannah (or Riley or John).
When you inevitably binge Happiest Season this month, don’t get distracted by the dysfunctional romance between the two main characters. Watch, instead, for the supporting act. They’re the ones who matter.
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