A good romantic comedy can be surprisingly difficult to reverse-engineer. It has to be light on the surface and resonant beneath, breezy and fun while acknowledging the costs of loneliness and the genuine pleasures of human connection. More than anything, you have to care about the characters — and they all have to end up with the right people.
“Happiest Season,” a new film debuting on Hulu, only gets some of it right. Given the talent involved and deftness with which it breaks barriers, that’s especially frustrating. The second feature directed by actress Clea DuVall — her first, “The Intervention” (2016) is worth a look — “Season” casts Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis (“Blade Runner 2049,” “Halt and Catch Fire”) as Abby and Harper, a committed couple on their way from Pittsburgh to visit Harper’s small-town family for Christmas. The catch? Harper hasn’t told her parents she’s gay, so Abby has to pretend to be her roommate.
Victor Garber and Mary Steenburgen play the parents, the father running for mayor on a family-values platform and the mother named Tipper, which is all you need to know. Older sister Sloane (Alison Brie of “Mad Men” and “GLOW”) is locked in a vicious lifelong competition with Harper, while third sister Jane (Mary Holland, who co-wrote the screenplay with DuVall) is an awkward misfit whose status as punchline or object of sympathy is unclear. Also lurking around the edges are Harper’s still-smitten high school boyfriend (Jake McDorman) and Riley (Aubrey Plaza), the girlfriend Harper threw under the bus back when they all were teenagers.
“Happiest Season” wants to be a home-for-the-holidays comic nightmare but also an affecting parable about self-censorship and family repression, with Abby sidelined by her partner’s terror of coming out to a judgmental brood. The two tones nearly cancel each other out: Harper’s cartoonish parents and sisters coexist uneasily with Stewart’s affecting portrait of a good person in an intolerable situation. There are some decent slapstick laughs — Abby literally hiding in a closet with an out-of-control Roomba, for instance — but the film’s vibe grows increasingly sour.
Two players almost save the day: Dan Levy, of “Schitt’s Creek,” as Abby’s pet-sitter and party-crasher, cracking wise in the designated Eve Arden role, and Plaza, who makes the cast-off ex, now a self-possessed medical student, the most level-headed person in the movie. “Happiest Season” miscalculates the moral arithmetic of romantic comedy by leading a viewer to expect a particular development — to actively hope for a particular development — that is then denied in the interests of a forced holiday party/family feud climax. You know what I said earlier about everyone having to end up with the right person in movies like this? Maybe the one with whom they have the most chemistry? That doesn’t happen here, even if the filmmakers seem to think it does. Watching “Happiest Season” is like opening the wrong present on Christmas morning: You’re a little bummed out and it’s too late to put it back in the box.
Directed by Clea DuVall. Written by DuVall and Mary Holland. Starring Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Aubrey Plaza, Dan Levy, Alison Brie, Mary Steenburgen, Victor Garber. Available on Hulu. PG-13 (some language).