If you took While You Were Sleeping, added a touch of My Best Friend’s Wedding, and melded them with a lesbian makeover, you would likely get Happiest Season, a new holiday rom-com starring Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis. And if that kind of makes the film sound a bit derivative, well, it is. Writer-director Clea DuVall here has set out to put a queer spin on the sort of comforting, feel-good holiday romances that audiences have long enjoyed or just been used to. In some ways, it might also bring to mind the 2018 teen movie Love, Simon, which means Happiest Season can mostly feel like something you’ve so countless times before, with mixed amount of insights.
The boldest choice that DuVall makes in her second feature is to skip past the flutters of blossoming love and instead center around a couple in crisis. It’s not until halfway through a road trip to her parents’ house that Harper Caldwell (Davis) confesses to girlfriend Abby (Stewart) that she’s not come out to her family yet. So while Abby had been planning to propose at the Caldwell family Christmas, she instead finds herself pretending to be Harper’s straight roommate. Even worse, she’s shocked to discover that her quirky, fun-loving girlfriend acts differently when she’s around her family. Being back in her hometown seems to awaken Harper’s latent high-school mean girl, as she starts ditching Abby to schmooze with her parents’ colleagues or grab drinks with her high-school boyfriend.
Which leads to Abby to start calling her best gay friend (Daniel Levy) for help and for her to soon connect with Harper’s secret high school girlfriend Riley (Aubrey Plaza). This growing separation hits on Happiest Season‘s strongest theme of dualities of self, of having to put-on or hide around family. Harper’s politician dad (Victor Garber) and image-focused mom (Mary Steenburgen) have slotted their three daughters into preordained roles and then pitted them against one another. That leaves Harper with plenty to unpack in her relationship with her sisters, played by Alison Brie and Mary Holland (the latter who also co-wrote the film with DuVall). So there are sparks of truth (and laughs) here, in other words, it’s mixed amongst the cogs of the sentimental formula. And that also means that none of us needs to pretend that any sort of a sour ending is coming. Things are tidy and work out perfectly, outlasting the solid ensemble that’s on display here. It’s intentions are in the right place, but that’s all there really is: mixed attempts. There’s definitely some laughs and charms to be had, it’s just that Happiest Season is wrapped in such sap and tropes that it can’t fully escape itself from the rigors of its formula.
Happiest Season is available to stream on Hulu
In Run, helicopter parenting reaches a whole new level of deranged. Balancing on the backs of umpteen matriarch-from-hell movies, director Aneesh Chaganty brings us Run, a nifty little thriller of an unwieldy tone. Sarah Paulson co-stars as Diane, a single mother so controlling she’s more prison warden than parent, and her performance is one that flickers with camp. That tone is on display when Diane insinuates to fellow home-school parents that, for the past seventeen years, her sickly daughter, Chloe (Kiera Allen, in her feature acting debut), has made her life a misery of servitude. And it fully blooms in the movie’s dementedly operatic scenes, when the scales have slipped from Chloe’s eyes and Diane is revealed in all her deranged glory.
Before then though, the movie hints at a mildly sinister hostage drama as Chloe, smart and wheelchair-bound, waits for her college acceptance letter and navigates multiple chronic health conditions. Surprisingly cheerful for someone with neither friends nor any type of technology, Chloe maintains a comfortable codependency with Diane, who provides pills and plausible reasons for denying her daughter further freedoms. Until one troubling discovery kicks Chloe into an unexpectedly suspenseful battle for more than just the right to online privacy. Chaganty continues to show a knack for crafting tense thrills from the simplest of raw materials, orchestrating a fast-paced succession of twists and beat-the-clock getaways that keep tensions high, even when the beats feel overly familiar. Yet Run lacks the inventiveness of his 2018 debut Searching, which offered a fresh spin on the old-fashioned missing-person movie by having the story play out entirely on computer screens and smartphones. Here, the director effectively executes another tried-and-true suspense template, just without offering many new ideas.
From some of its difficult-to-believe human behavior to its lack of a psychological framework, Run does run into its issues. (One is hard-pressed to believe that such a perceptive young woman like Chloe would go so many years without detecting foul play.) Throughout, Run privileges shocks and increasingly outrageous drama at the expense of its character. But that impulse isn’t entirely misguided. Whether Chaganty intended to lean into the campy psychosis of B-movie fare or not, Run‘s disturbing qualities are matched by its delectable, outlandishness — a crawling rooftop getaway, an innocent casualty, an armed showdown at the hospital. As a psychological thriller, its’ a far cry from the full package, but Chaganty’s willingness to go off the deep end is admirable. Run may not always transcend its narrative trappings and pitfalls, but it remains strong with its tense set pieces of controlled chaos and the go-for-broke audaciousness of its tone.
Run is available to stream on Hulu