How to make Yuletide Gay?
The happiest season isn’t a perfect LGBTQ Christmas movie, but does it have to be?
There’s a really horrible Christmas movie that I watch every year called 12 Christmas dates. It’s a Groundhog Day-esque thing done for ABC Family in which a woman lives on Christmas Eve 12 times until she finally succeeds. It’s a small budget. It doesn’t make a lot of sense when it comes to space and time; it’s one of those movies where they want you to believe the characters are living in New York City, but, really, they’re all in Canada. To say that it is a good movie would be telling a lie. But still, most years, I come back to it.
It weighed on my mind watching Clea Duvall’s The happiest season. (Warning: spoilers to come.Billed as Hollywood’s first-ever budget LGBTQ + Christmas film, it stars Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis as Abby and Harper, a Pittsburgh lesbian couple who are set to get engaged after Harper invited Abby home for Christmas to meet her family. (Stewart’s Abby doesn’t have a family because she was orphaned after both parents died when she was 19, a piece of information that is repeated so often Abby might as well get a tattoo on her forehead.) the ride, however, Harper reveals that not only did she not tell her family that Abby was his girlfriend, but that she wasn’t out with them at all, and Abby could please spend the duration of the trip pretending to be his straight roommate? As you can imagine, this is not going very well.
Harper’s parents, Mary Steenburgen and Victor Garber, are perfectionists driven solely by the desire to maintain the illusion of having it all together. And so Steenburgen spends most of the movie trying to get Harper back with her high school boyfriend (Jake McDorman, who after an hour of watching I finally placed as “the guy from Greek”). Garber is focused on a mayoral race, which will apparently collapse if one of his adult children steps out of line by, for example, coming out of the closet or admitting their marriage is a sham. In the process, we meet Riley – Aubrey Plaza – Harper’s first girlfriend, who spent high school being bullied for being gay after Harper told her to selfishly protect herself. She’s now a very cool doctor dressed in a costume who befriends the character of Stewart and helps him cope as his girlfriend slowly transforms into the person her family wants her to be.
Obviously, you pretty much know how this is all going to end. Harper goes out with her parents and then makes a big romantic gesture in the parking lot of a gas station – the parking lot of a Love’s, because the Christmas movies are nothing but on the nose – to win Abby back. Everyone is gathered around the tree the next morning, including Abby’s best friend Dan Levy, who arrived on Christmas Eve to save Abby and ended up delivering the film’s emotional climax, on the fact that going out is never something you can do for someone else, no matter how much you love them. Come on a year later, and everyone lives happily ever after and eats popcorn at the movies as the opening credits of It’s a wonderful life pass. Cue the original Tegan and Sara song and fade to black.
The result is a very smooth film with a lot of rewatch potential. But still I wanted so much more The happiest season. I wanted a modern queer romance that wasn’t just about dating, which is the beginning and end of so many gay stories, and frankly, feels like the kind of story assigned to queer people by a heterocentric industry. I wanted a movie that didn’t feel trapped in 2007. I wanted a movie where the big monologue of a movie about love between two women didn’t come from the gay best friend – where the revelation of a queer woman about her relationship is not crystallized for her by your mother Schitt Creek fave. (Dan Levy is perfectly fine in the role; I dispute the role’s existence in the first place.) The only characters of color find themselves grappling with the film’s more questionable motives; Harper’s biracial niece and nephew exist almost solely to indict Abby with shoplifting at a mall, and their dad gets caught kissing with Harper’s dad’s campaign manager in a closet for a while. the very important family Christmas celebration. The happiest season comes down to a pretty funny story about rich whites – some of whom, it turns out, are gay. (It can be enough funny at times, however, most notably when Mary Holland, who co-wrote the script, is onscreen as Harper’s bizarre sister.)
Which brings me back to 12 Christmas dates, a categorically bad film but still one that I turn to every year to revel in its horror. Because Christmas movies with straight storylines can be bad. They have the right to be lame. They are allowed to have tales that revolve around things like “Mrs. Clause,” which forces Santa to frantically hunt a woman before Christmas Eve lest he breach her contract and lose his job. (Santa Claus 2. Yes, really.) Sure, there’s the rare holiday flick that meets traditional cinema standards, but it’s usually the ones with budgets, top talent, and a major cast: Holidays. Last holidays. The family stone. Love in fact.
This week I also watched A Christmas wedding in New York on Netflix, a movie about a queer Afro-Latina woman waking up to an alternate reality in which she can marry her childhood best friend, also a woman, in a Catholic church thanks to a very liberal priest (played by Mr. Big of Gender and city Fame). Contrary to The happiest season, A Christmas wedding in New York features a diverse cast that reflects a very real New York City. What he lacks is the same Hollywood treatment. Where it lost me, however, it wasn’t the film’s low-budget feel, or its subsequent plot holes, but rather a hyper-Christian right-wing plot to life that left me squirming and rehashing. repressed memories of a childhood spent in Catholicism. school. If you can handle that, however, it’s a love story that offers something that so many queer adult cam have yearned for: the chance to turn back time and life again, proud and proud. The final scenes are surprisingly tender, and end without ever centering the whiteness in the typical holiday movie fashion. Carmen Phillips at Autostraddle has an excellent review who enters the good and the bad of A Christmas wedding in New York, highlighting the frustration in its inevitable comparison with the other, bigger LGBTQ + Christmas movies this year.
Also on this list of the greatest LGBTQ + Christmas movies 2020 is Hallmark Christmas house, which marks the network’s first major LGBTQ + story and a marked turnaround for the network that caught fire in 2019 for shoot an ad featuring a lesbian kiss. It stars Jonathan Bennett (Bad girls), whom I met last year at Hallmark’s ChristmasCon, a three-day event at a New Jersey convention center devoted to all things joyful and bright. Bennett, who is openly gay, brought in Daniel Franzese, the actor who played Damian in Bad girls, on stage as a surprise guest. Franzese all talked about the importance of playing a queer character in 2004, while Bennett has been pretty cool. Earlier today, I asked Melissa Joan Hart – a lifelong Christmas filmmaker – if she thought we would ever see a Christmas movie with an LGBTQ + plot. She looked at me, puzzled, and said, “Well… Love in fact. (False.) The whole day made me feel a little sad, as a lesbian who counts the days to plant a tree and start watching sick movies throughout December.
I think this is where a movie like The happiest season is configured to fail. I found the emphasis on a Christmas marriage proposal frustrating; part of the joy of Christmas movies is their reliable tropes, but I want queer holiday movies to have space to have their own. clean tropes. There is something very familiar, if you are queer, about feeling the conflict of wanting to provide a ‘good’ portrayal, the kind that fits heteronormative expectations of what LGBTQ stories should look like, and at the same time. time wanting an authentic portrayal that could favor other queer people in potentially harmful ways. (Dan Levy has an admittedly great line where he compares Stewart asking his girlfriend’s parents for their daughter’s hand in marriage to permission to possess a grown human wife. His skepticism about the traditional mold of marriage struck me as the same. one of the homosexuals in the movie. Yet despite its shortcomings, this is truly the first mainstream gay Christmas movie to hit the market. Which meant that while watching it, I found myself overwhelmed by this desperate need that it reaches a ridiculous level of perfection, so that it doesn’t fail on any level, lest it be the only crumb of Christmas that homosexuals ever have.
For this to be possible even from a distance, queer people would have to be a monolith. Which we are clearly not. That’s sort of the whole point. I wouldn’t hold it against a crappy Christmas movie made for TV if the thing seemed mundane and filled with tropes – if the happy ending was predictable and the snow started falling just at the right second. It’s what you expect and what you even want from a movie like this. The point is, saying “portrayal matters” about LGBTQ + stories is as much about the details of those stories as it is about the quantity of those stories. We don’t necessarily need The happiest season to be better, especially since we need a hundred more films like this. Movies about queer people at all stages of queerness, movies that aren’t just white and thin and, finally, Kristen Stewart. For now, this is a start, even if it is far from sufficient. But, really, no Christmas story could be. Even my beloved 12 dates need a dozen tries to get it right.