Actor/Co-writer Mary Holland On Bringing “Happiest Season” To The Screen
Everybody loves the festive season. Reuniting with family, eating, drinking, and being merry. Not to mention the stress and anxiety that accompanies it. It’s a special time and a special place full of traditions. What if you’re bringing your roommate home to meet the family during Christmas? This is the story of Abby (Kirsten Stewart) and Harper (MacKenzie Davis) who meet Harper’s family for the first time over Christmas dinner. What if Abby and Harper were more than roommates? They’re a couple very much in love and on the verge of getting married. So what’s the problem?
Harper just needs to find the right moment to break the news to her family. This is a peculiar family dynamic because Harper’s family isn’t necessarily homophobic or unaccepting. It’s about appearances – a dynamic that can only be described as “It’s complicated,” since her father Ted (Victor Garber) is running for mayor in a conservative town.
Welcome to the Happiest Season – a film just as much about coming out of the closet as it is about going back in.
Harper’s coming out process paradoxically occurs by going deeper into the closet first. Harper and Abby indulge in a heterosexual ruse and pretend to be roommates until Harper is emotionally ready to break the news to her family after holiday dinner. “In order for Harper to make that journey she has to go inside and listen to herself so she can come out,” mused Mary Holland, who also plays the role of Jane Caldwell (Harper’s perfect sister). “The coming out process is deeply personal and different for everybody,” she continued. Everybody does it in their own way, time, and pace.
Holland co-wrote Happiest Season with director Clea DuVall who had wanted to share her personal story for quite some time. Happiest Season isn’t a blatant “LGBTQ+” film. Nor is it a “straight” film with gay characters to make it more “inclusive.” This subtle dichotomy was vital in setting the heartwarming tone of the film.
First and foremost this is a holiday film. “It was important for us to make a joyful, celebratory, holiday rom-com movie,” declared Holland. “We wanted to tell a universal story with all the tropes expected of this genre, but also tell it through a lens we haven’t seen before.” The film needed to be relatable to a wide audience, but also accurately represent an LGBTQ+ couple.
It’s a peculiar situation for Abby and Harper to be in given that they are out to everyone else and completely in love with each other. “They have a healthy, grounded relationship.” The fact that Harper is still in the closet to her family comes as a complete surprise to Abby.
Regrettably, Harper “doesn’t feel it’s the right time for her to come out of the closet. She will do so when she’s ready.” Although surprised, Abby decides to play along for a few days on the understanding that it will all be out in the open in a few days. The inconvenience is a small price to pay for love.
Holland expanded on Harper’s rationale for remaining closeted to her family. Harper has moved on from her childhood and forged an adult life as a gay woman. When she returns to the family home, she returns to her old patterns and behavioral expectations of appearing heterosexual. This isn’t even a homophobic or “don’t ask, don’t tell” scenario.
Curiously, this paradigm of reverting to established family dynamics holds true for all the Caldwell sisters. “They were all competing with each other and for their parents’ affection. They were driven by a fear of not being perfect, not fulfilling expectations, and not fitting into the family mold.” Being or not being gay wasn’t a consideration.
An additional dimension of Abby’s character is her exploring the concept of having a family in light of her being an orphan. This makes her meeting Harper’s family all the more significant. “The holidays are really tough for her. She has found a new family in Harper and her intense family,” despite its discomfort.
Eventually, Harper is inelegantly forced out of the closet by Jane. Following the initial shock, Harper’s family don’t reject her as she feared. Harper’s mother Tipper (Mary Steenburgen) is dismayed that Harper felt she couldn’t speak to them. Her father Ted “needs some time to process it.”
Soon after Harper’s messy coming out, Abby breaks up with her despite their relationship being public. Despite the relief from no longer keeping secrets, Abby was tired of the emotional cost of Harper coming out. “Their trust was frayed. This was Harper’s personal journey and Abby felt they needed to take a break.” Abby has had enough of the uncomfortable environment in the Caldwell family.
John (played by Daniel Levi) is Abby’s gay best friend and confidante who completes the character triad. “We wanted John to be a three-dimensional person rather than a clownish gay sidekick. He’s such an important guide and mentor for Abby especially in the aftermath of breaking up with Harper.” John’s family didn’t speak to him for fourteen years after he came out.
Navigating these emotions is difficult to do on one’s own. Abby was vulnerable and John was a pivotal character in helping Abby process her feelings and accept Harper’s journey.
Happiest Season is Clea DuVall’s personal story and she asked Mary Holland to help her bring it to life. It was a delightful merging of creative minds that could have been fraught with conflicting opinions.
During the script development process, Holland aimed to support DuVall’s vision rather than add her ideas to it and steer it in a new direction. Although Clea DuVall had a clear vision and passion for Happiest Season, they both set out to make a holiday movie because these celebrations were such a significant part of both their life experiences.
Mary Holland defines her story sensibilities in three words – playful, character, and meticulous. “Coming from a comedy improv background, I want to brainstorm ideas in the moment and be adaptable to where the story is going.” This was essential in crafting this screenplay because she didn’t enter the process with preconceived ideas about the story. She worked on the fly and in the present. Her goal was to elevate the material and make it shine.
The characters needed to feel like real people with real emotions rather than tools to drive the story. She was equally meticulous in exploring the nuances of her characters.
As a co-writer, Mary Holland could have insisted on playing one of the lead roles. “Jane [Mary’s character] didn’t totally fit into the family. As soon as I knew that, I knew I wanted to play her. Jane operates from a place of self-love and facade.”
Despite its mirth, Happiest Season explores deeply layered thematics including the wearing of masks and keeping of secrets. Holland believes that wearing a mask has a slight thematic edge over secrets. “Hiding your truth and who you are behind what you want other people to see you are really powerful.” It’s a universal theme that we can all relate to regardless of sexuality. “Wearing a mask for so long that it becomes part of you can be extremely difficult to dismantle. The same holds true if you put on a mask for the first time and have difficulty maintaining it.”
Identity is another key thematic of this film. It also explores elements of acceptance. “The desire to be accepted can sometimes supersede our understanding of our true selves. The desire to be part of a group means you’re safe. It’s a survival mechanism.” The entire Caldwell family struggles to find the right balance of fear and love. “There’s a dynamic in the household of needing to be perfect.” This is what binds them.
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