‘Happiest Season’ Director Clea DuVall Unpacks The Movie’s Polarizing Ending

DuVall and co-writer Mary Holland know how you feel about Abby and Riley. So do Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis. But let them explain.
Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis in "Happiest Season," now available on Hulu.
Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis in "Happiest Season," now available on Hulu.

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

We should have known that Hollywood’s first lesbian holiday rom-com would invite feverish debate. Forget whatever Ben Shapiro was carping about on his podcast last week; I’m talking commentary from people who’ve actually seen the film and aren’t pearl-clutching because they secretly know that gay people are superior beings. “Happiest Season” broke the record for Hulu’s most-watched movie debut, according to the streaming service, an honor previously bestowed upon “Run” and “Palm Springs.” It also got a lot of folks across all corners of the internet talking about whether the central couple is meant to stay together, with some viewers outright dismissing the film because of its ending.

To recap: “Happiest Season” stars Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis as a Pittsburgh couple — Abby and Harper, respectively — venturing home for a five-day Christmas visit with Harper’s WASP parents. On the way there, Harper informs Abby that she hasn’t told her parents she’s gay. So Abby pretends to be Harper’s straight roommate, and she’s only able to be herself after meeting Riley (Aubrey Plaza), a beautiful lesbian doctor who dated Harper in high school. The thing is, Stewart and Plaza have oodles of chemistry, and the movie lets Abby and Riley flirt just enough to make us suspect they might (or at least should) hook up. They don’t, instead forging a friendship that I found refreshing. After some yuletide antics, Harper finally comes out to her family. The couple stays together because this is a rom-com — they were never not going to. But when you throw someone as appealing as Aubrey Plaza into the mix, it’s hard not to see her get her own moment under the mistletoe.

If you’re in the “Justice for Riley” camp, don’t worry. Stewart and Davis get it. So does Clea DuVall, who directed the film and co-wrote it with Mary Holland, the scene-stealer who plays Harper’s oft-ignored sister Jane.

“There’s something about lesbian relationships,” Stewart, who is gay, said when I talked to her about the movie a couple of weeks ago. “You are dating your best friend. And so it wasn’t hard [with Mackenzie] to be like, ‘Dude, you’re my bro. You’re my buddy. I could hang with you all the time.’ And I was just nervous that it was almost too natural, like we weren’t doing enough or something. Or, I don’t know, do we seem couple-y?”

“Having seen the movie now, I think it is really sweet,” she said. “I think the two of us, by being ourselves together, just kind of earn a lot because you’re like, ‘Oh, they clearly like each other.’”

DuVall and Holland have good reasons for doing things their way, as they told me via Zoom on Tuesday. Even if you disagree with the rationale, at least we can take comfort in the fact that people a lot smarter than Ben Shapiro are thrilled to see and talk about a gay Christmas comedy.

What kind of responses have you heard about the film, and how have they made you feel?

Clea DuVall: The response has been so overwhelmingly positive, and I don’t know about you, Mary, but I feel like every single person I know has texted or emailed me and there’s just so much love and enthusiasm for this movie. And seeing beautiful messages online. It’s been really incredible to watch how this film has been embraced.

Mary Holland: Yeah, I’ve had the same experience. A lot of friends and family reaching out and saying how much they enjoyed it, and then also getting a lot of messages from people I don’t know that have been really moving. It’s been so wonderful to have it be received so warmly.

"We always wanted there to be a happy ending for Abby and Harper," said Clea DuVall, pictured above with Stewart and Davis on the set of "Happiest Season." "It was very important at the end of the journey for it to be a success, to have just a straight-up happy ending because I think LGBTQ films are riddled with bittersweet endings."
"We always wanted there to be a happy ending for Abby and Harper," said Clea DuVall, pictured above with Stewart and Davis on the set of "Happiest Season." "It was very important at the end of the journey for it to be a success, to have just a straight-up happy ending because I think LGBTQ films are riddled with bittersweet endings."

Clea, you made “The Intervention” in 2016. How does the “Happiest Season” rollout compare to that?

DuVall: It’s the difference between a toy rocket and a space shuttle launch.

Holland: Hey, they’ll both get you to the sky.

DuVall: There was a lot of love for my first film and a lot of support, but this is on a level that I could have never even dreamt of. It’s really remarkable. It’s been such a difficult year for everybody, and to be able to just cozy up in the safety of your own home with your family and watch a big, bright, warm, hopeful holiday movie is, I think, what everybody was really ready for.

Everyone who has seen this movie seems to be having a pretty spirited debate about the ending, specifically whether Abby and Harper should stay together or whether Abby should have gotten together with Riley. What is your take on that becoming a talking point?

DuVall: Well, I think it’s really fun that it is a talking point and that people are having debates. It’s really cool, I think, but something that was really important to me personally was showing a friendship between two queer women. I feel like so much of the time when you see two queer women onscreen — usually because they’re the only ones — it’s like, “Well, you have to end up together because there’s no one else.” But also the relationships in my life with other queer women are so special and so important to me, and I think showcasing that and watching two women have an intimate connection that doesn’t need to be romantic is really important because it is such an important part of our community.

There are moments in the film when we see little flirtatious exchanges between Abby and Riley. There is a sense of “will they, won’t they.” Did you toy with the idea of going there?

DuVall: No. We always wanted there to be a happy ending for Abby and Harper. It was very important at the end of the journey for it to be a success, to have just a straight-up happy ending because I think LGBTQ films are riddled with bittersweet endings. That’s all I can think of when I think of queer movies. The last truly happy ending I can think of is “But I’m a Cheerleader,” and that was 20 years ago. And especially with Harper, we’re meeting her on the worst four days of her life, where she’s hitting bottom and we are watching it, and that is messy and that is uncomfortable. Then, at the end of that, she can come out the other side of it and make a different choice and use it as an opportunity to grow and better herself. She is redeemed. She deserves to be forgiven. She deserves to be loved, and she’s willing to do the work to get it back. Even though the movie ends in a happy way and we cut to a year later, what I always envision is the time in between when they’re really dealing with that, because it’s not like they come home and they get engaged right away. It’s 10 months later that they get engaged. A lot of work is done.

Aubrey Plaza and Stewart in "Happiest Season."
Aubrey Plaza and Stewart in "Happiest Season."

I didn’t quite anticipate the debates around the end when I first saw the movie. Maybe because, in my mind, I didn’t really think of it as a coming-out movie, per se. I felt like Abby was the real protagonist. Through her, it’s the story of a well-adjusted gay person, which is nice to see onscreen, forced into a situation where she has to code-switch to survive. Was that dynamic immediately clear to you when you started writing the movie?

DuVall: Yeah. I think it’s a funny thing. Being a queer person is really interesting because — at least I can speak for myself — I have surprised myself in the moments where I have chosen to put myself back in the closet. It’s a very subtle thing that can happen, and obviously this is an extreme version of it because it’s a movie. It’s a heightened reality. Whether it’s being in an Uber and someone asking you if you have a husband and just saying “yeah” because it’s easier than being like, “No, actually I have a wife.” You don’t want to come out to the Uber driver. Walking down the street in a more conservative state or city with my partner and not holding hands or not standing too close. It is an interesting thing that happens to us. I am so comfortable and well-adjusted and thrilled that I’m gay — couldn’t be happier! — and yet, there are still those moments where you don’t feel entirely safe expressing yourself in that way because our world is not as accepting as we would like to think. The last four years have taught us that, but it’s also something you don’t think about because you think we’re so past it, or you live in New York or you live in Los Angeles and you’re like, “Is that still an issue? People still care about that?” And it’s like, yeah. What a privilege to think that it’s not an issue.

Many gay movies are fundamentally about coming out or about that first brush of attraction or self-acceptance. I’m so hungry for movies that are about what comes next, which is why my attention went directly to Abby.

DuVall: Absolutely. As much as it is about Harper and Abby, Abby is there for everything. There is not a moment we are not with Abby, so we are on her journey. We’re so rooted in her journey, but it’s also like [there’s more to explore if there were a sequel].

Mary Holland in "Happiest Season."
Mary Holland in "Happiest Season."

I wonder, though, about the backstory that you guys wrote for Harper, specifically with regard to the love letter and outing Riley in high school. It is a harsh backstory. Did you ever worry it would make her unlikable?

DuVall: Self-loathing and internalized homophobia is a very real thing. I have definitely wrestled with it, and so many people I know have wrestled with acting out at other people because you don’t want to be found out. You feel like there’s something fundamentally wrong with you, and you will do anything you can to deny it. I think there are a lot of awful things that come out of that, and self-love is sometimes so hard to achieve. Yeah, it is messy, and she does do things that are unlikable, but she is a good person who is in a place of extreme fear, and [it’s important] to not gloss over that. Especially someone who was 16 years old going through that. And that’s the thing: I know we’re hearing this story in real time in the movie, but that’s something that happened 16 years ago. That’s before the part of your brain that can experience empathy even has formed. So it feels very real, and Aubrey does such a beautiful job telling that story. It was interesting when talking to Aubrey about what we were really going for. Riley is OK. Riley is fine. Riley is the most comfortable with herself and really has processed that experience, has moved past it. What I really wanted to capture in that moment was someone who was fine with it and not dwelling on it, but in telling the story was surprised that there were still feelings there because it is unresolved. She and Harper haven’t ever talked about it, but it’s not something she spent the last 15 years crying about.

That’s another thing that I think is very real: talking about something that happened a long time ago that then you’re like, “Oh, I guess there is still a little bit of feeling because there wasn’t closure.” And that’s why I think it’s such a beautiful moment in the film after the party when Riley extends herself in this very generous way. Harper is able to just look at her and finally say, “I’m sorry.” It’s so simple and it’s so quick, but because Mackenzie and Aubrey are such incredible actors, everything is not fixed, but the possibility for repair is created in that moment. And we’re not going to wrap all of that up, and they’re not going to take the time to have a full conversation, but it’s the acknowledgement that it needs to be had. That’s another conversation that I imagine happens after the movie ends. They sit, and they talk about it. Six months down the line, they are able to become a part of each other’s community.

When you first concocted Riley as the character who throws a wrench into the whole scenario, did you know that backstory would be part of it?

Holland: Yeah, that was always an aspect of Riley. Also, we’re coming into Harper’s home sphere. You see her family and a lot of people she used to interact with from her high school years. I think we really wanted to immerse the audience in the same way that Abby is immersed in this world to really gain an understanding of Harper and the struggle that she’s having.

You also deploy a lot of holiday movie hallmarks. I feel like there’s an informal list of tropes that these movies borrow — sibling rivalry, for example. Were there any in particular that you knew you wanted to include from the outset?

DuVall: It’s not like we had a checklist, but we definitely wanted to follow the formula because we wanted this to feel like a classic movie. We wanted people to watch it and even though, yes, it’s about two women, it still fits in with that nostalgic feeling, that classic, timeless feeling of a holiday movie. So yeah, it was the East Coast in the winter.

Holland: I do feel like that experience of going home for the holidays is a universal theme in a lot of holiday movies. And it’s also such a huge part of how we experience that time of the year, and the stress that comes along with that and the tension. It’s just such ripe ground to explore these dynamics.

Alison Brie and Davis in "Happiest Season."
Alison Brie and Davis in "Happiest Season."

What did it take to track down the magazine spread of Josh Hartnett that Jane is obsessed with?

DuVall: When we got into the production design aspect of the movie, I was talking to my production designer, Theresa Guleserian, and we were figuring out who the hunk would be. In my mind, there’s no cuter boy than Josh Hartnett. Josh and I worked together a million years ago [in “The Faculty”], and Theresa had worked with Josh, and they were friends. So we reached out and asked if he would let us use a photo of him, and he said yes.

So it’s not an actual, like, Tiger Beat spread? It was designed for the movie?

DuVall: Yeah, our art department created that poster, so it wasn’t from a real magazine. I have all the Tiger Beats, and I was not willing to give them up. [Editor’s note: She’s joking.]

Did you toss around other names in case Josh said no?

DuVall: I know we did, but by the early 2000s or whenever Harper would have been a teenager, hunky guys were not really my thing, so I wasn’t really paying as much attention. I can’t remember.

Holland: I can weigh in on this. I think Harper and I would’ve been the same age, so definitely Josh Hartnett. I feel like David Beckham. Who else? The only poster I had in my room when I was a kid was of Macaulay Culkin in “Home Alone.” I had such a crush on Macaulay Culkin, but I never had any other hunky guys on my wall. Oh, I maybe at one point had Orlando Bloom from “Lord of the Rings.”

DuVall: When I had hunky guys on my wall, it was more like Sean Astin and New Kids on the Block. It was a way long time ago.

When I talked to Kristen and Mackenzie, they said they filmed a lot more of the ice-skating race with Alison Brie. Why did it get cut down?

DuVall: Truthfully, the part of the scene that got cut down just never worked. It felt very off, story-wise. And to make it more about Sloane and Harper’s competitiveness so much that they don’t even stay focused on the race itself or the rules of the race because they just want to beat each other felt more on the story than the other thing that we had. My editor and I worked on that scene a lot. No matter how many ways we cut it, even in the best versions of it — we definitely got a version of it that was really good — it just never felt right to me. And so reimagining it felt more in line with the characters in the story.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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