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'Happiest Season' review: New holiday movie offers first-rate escapism

Mackenzie Davis (L) and Kristen Stewart star in

Mackenzie Davis (L) and Kristen Stewart star in "Happiest Season." Credit: LACEY TERRELL

MOVIE "Happiest Season"

WHERE Streaming on Hulu

WHAT IT'S ABOUT In "Happiest Season," Kristen Stewart's Abby goes home for the holidays to meet the family of girlfriend Harper (Mackenzie Davis), planning to propose before learning that Harper hasn't come out to them yet. The dramedy is directed and cowritten by the veteran actress Clea DuVall ("Veep," among many other credits) and is streaming on Hulu.

The Caldwell family lives in an immaculate suburban Pennsylvania mansion, but beneath the surface, as is always the case in home-for-the-holidays movies, there's a deep reservoir of dysfunction.

The supporting cast includes Victor Garber as Caldwell patriarch Ted, who is running for mayor, and the irreplaceable Mary Steenburgen as mom Tipper. They are buttressed by everyone from Alison Brie and cowriter Mary Holland as Harper's sisters, to Aubrey Plaza and Dan Levy of "Schitt's Creek" fame.

MY SAY This is first-rate escapism, a worthy addition to the ever-expanding subgenre of movies about families suppressing their problems to put on a happy face for the holidays.

In her second stint behind the camera (she made her debut in 2016's "The Intervention"), DuVall displays a gift for balancing tones, keeping the material from teetering too heavily toward broad comedy or overwrought drama.

"Happiest Season" occasionally feels a bit too tidy: even though it operates in this general vicinity, it's not exactly interested in presenting a biting satire of the world of country club Republican politics.

But this isn't Hallmark-level stuff filled with trite bromides about the meaning of Christmas, either. And that's not just true in the sense that it represents something rather momentous by bringing an LGBTQ story into this most mainstream of filmmaking modes, with an ensemble of stars.

The movie has the sort of holiday gloss one expects, including shots of snowy streets, shimmering lights and cozy interiors, but it uses the merry archetypes to add depth to a narrative about people hiding their true selves because of the weight of familial expectations.

Thanks to DuVall's sure hand and her excellent cast there's never anything less than the sense that you're watching real people trying to desperately avoid expressing their true feelings while being surrounded by seasonal cheer. No matter how many times this basic framework might be repeated on-screen, when it's done well, it's always relatable.

Stewart remains an underrated actor, with unfair impressions about her talent formed thanks to the "Twilight" series (good luck making that universe seem anything more than completely inane).

The star has traditionally seemed more comfortable in offbeat, independent movies like "Clouds of Sils Maria" than at the front of mainstream fare, but there's something palpable and deeply felt about the quiet sadness she affects as Abby becomes increasingly troubled by Harper's struggle to be honest with her family.

At the same time, Davis captures the fear and uncertainty that comes with making such a momentous revelation; she's genuinely pained by the facade she has forced on Abby by pretending they're just roommates and shows it through subtle gestures while affecting the "perfect" image for her parents.

The laughs come courtesy largely of Steenburgen as the image-obsessed Tipper, snapping endless "behind-the-scenes" family photos with her iPad for her husband's campaign and practically throwing herself into passive-aggressive exhortations that her daughters run the exact errands she needs from them, right now. Levy, as Abby's best friend John, adds further comic relief that's a cut above the norm.

BOTTOM LINE "Happiest Season" is another movie to add to the list of holiday season staples.

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