Mackenize Davis, Kristen Stewart and Dan Levy lead the ensemble cast of Christmas film Happiest Season: here’s our review.

It’s perhaps an obvious conclusion, but the masterstroke of Happiest Season is that its writers – Mary Holland and Clea DuVall – decided to set it at Christmas.

After all, within the clothes of a festive movie, you can more easily play around with contrivances and get away with it, and you can come up with fairly easy answers to moments that would be tougher to resolve in other movies. Happiest Season is happy to play those rules to its advantage.

Yet also, there’s something really knowing about this one too, because it plays within those Yuletide parameters to offer something both very familiar and yet a little different too. That it very much has a reason for being, beyond 100 minutes of entertainment.

The difference on the surface is that the couple at the heart of the movie are the same gender. Abby and Harper are played by Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis, and the pair are heading to Harper’s family for five days of the festive season. The slight snag? Harper’s neither told them about Abby, nor that she’s gay. It’s a situation placed at the heart of on the surface a big, glossy mainstream movie, and the early stages of Happiest Season mine this heavily for humour.

But the differences with this film aren’t just on the surface, and there’s more to it than that. The hiding of their true selves presents not just an instant strain between Abby and Harper, but sets up tensions when they arrive at Harper’s family home. Thankfully, it’s a home full of three dimensional characters too. Harper’s father Ted (Victor Garber) is running to be mayor, and wants no scandals. The mighty Mary Steenburgen as her mother Tipper is plotting her legendary Christmas Eve party, and that has to go perfectly. Oh, and there’s Harper’s sisters – Sloane (Alison Brie) and Jane (Holland) – who are all in the mix too. That’s just a slice of the people we meet, as a big cauldron of secrets of lies, wrapped up in a seasonal bow, is duly served up.

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What Holland and DuVall thread in here, that quietly deepens the movie, are some moments where they really challenge their main characters, and give a large number of them very much a reason for being. Why does Harper hide her feelings when she’s at home, for instance? Is it the expectation of family? Could it be to do with the man who clearly wants to rekindle a relationship with her? Where does Aubrey Plaza’s Riley fit into this? I couldn’t help but appreciate that someone put the hard graft in to make the interweaving characters here actually matter.

Harper in particular – superbly played by Davis – goes through a lot in the film, and it’s not always made clear just how we should be feeling about her. My feelings towards her kept shifting, with the film offering nudges as to what direction to go in. The sympathy of the narrative is very much angled towards the equally-excellent Kristen Stewart’s Abby. I found myself completely invested in both.

Countering some of this, just every now and then does the film feel like it takes you out of things a little. An incident in a shopping mall screamed plot device to me, for instance, and there are moments of characters getting into daft situations that feel a little from a different film (I say as someone very much open to to the benefits of a robot vacuum cleaner).

Also feeling like he’s from a slightly different production for the most part of his role is Dan Levy as John. But in this case that’s not a criticism, given how much fun he injects. Levy plays the character as if he’s just headed over during a break from filming Schitt’s Creek, and he brings with it surgically precise delivery of already funny lines. You don’t get much of him, but when he turns up, you’re not shortchanged.

Neither are you by the film. On the surface, Happiest Season often appears like a film that can be pigeonholed, and that it’s straightforward to do so. A bit of Love Actually? A bit of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation? Perhaps a dab of The Family Stone even?

Yet under its covers, there’s an intersection of familiarity with less usual conversations. What’s more, there’s a moment right near the end where a character who’s to that point had a less prominent role in the film comes forward with a few words that nearly broke me. It struck me on reflection of that just how well that moment had been built to in the background, and how much it mattered. Right throughout the film, the sense that someone cared and bothered.

It’s bursting with heart this one, funny in places, and yet with real humanity – in its good and bad forms – in the stories that it weaves. But going back to that original point: because it’s so skilfully wrapped up in festive clothes, it succeeds both as a piece of joyful mainstream entertainment, and as a movie with more under the bonnet than it may at first appear.

Happiest Season is available on demand in the UK from November 27th.

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