Wednesday, November 25, 2020


Happiest Season, like any good grownup Christmas comedy, is a fizzy charmer leavened by the acknowledgment that, to adults, holidays can be just as much about family tensions and microagressions as togetherness and good cheer. So it is with the Caldwells, whose middle daughter (Mackenzie Davis) invites her serious girlfriend (Kristen Stewart) home to meet her parents (Victor Garber and Mary Steenburgen). The problem: dad’s a conservative mayoral candidate and mom’s an equally clenched socialite. So they’ll have to be introduced as roommates for the time being. Thus kicks off a Christmas week in the closet, which of course draws out fault lines in the women’s romantic relationship as a simmering backdrop to the twirl of social engagements and similarly fraught emotional sniping and jostling between the other grown daughters (Mary Holland and Alison Brie) back in the nest. Here’s a movie that knows that grown people back in their hometown, under the roof of their childhood home, can all-too-easily revert to bad habits and adolescent pettiness. The combination makes the movie thoroughly cozy —fireplaces and sweaters and scarfs and snow-dusted small-town shops and sidewalks — but also tremulously prickly—as eggshell-walking sensitive as its leads need to be to navigate the stresses of the week. Like that great Jodie Foster picture Home for the Holidays, if not quite on that level, here’s a movie that’s full of types in interesting combinations, and generously proportioned to give each their due. The cast (down to small parts for Ana Gasteyer and Aubrey Plaza) enlivens the drama beyond the formula so much that, even when the screenplay leans into some mild farce, a wacky best friend (Dan Levy), and big speeches, it nonetheless rings true. The movie sparkles with good laughs, and amusing scenarios (the kind that only occasionally tip over into sitcom broadness). It benefits greatly from the chemistry between all involved, and by treating their dilemmas with the weight they require while not letting it deflate the whole soufflĂ© on the rise.

And how confidently the movie knows its lead characters' hearts. The proceedings are attuned to their shifts of feeling and desire. It knows keenly the way an off-hand comment can cut like a knife, a new situation can throw new light on a person you thought you knew. Stewart, especially, enters the picture as the outsider, and the way she gingerly tries to ingratiate herself with the family and do right for the woman she loves, even as she questions her (and their!) priorities, is written across her every gesture. (Stewart is truly one of the finest performers of her generation for how casually she holds the screen and communicates a scenario, even without a word.) I was invested in the emotional complexities at hand, even as the movie does its best to use them as grist for the feather-light touch it uses to draw them out and tie them up. Ultimately, the film plays fair by its characters while wearing its heart on its sleeve. And writer-director Clea DuVall not only gets great dynamics out of the cast, and paces out the comedic and dramatic bits with fine timing, but helms it all with high gloss and Christmassy production design and needle drops. It’s refreshing to find any studio comedy (albeit rerouted to Hulu in another of this year’s endless necessary schedule shuffles), let alone the rare Christmas one, that works this well at a human level. It’s broadly appealing and appealingly specific.

No comments:

Post a Comment