Updated: Jan 5, 2021
After a tumultuous 2020, there’s nothing more needed than cozying up in matching pajamas, sipping hot chocolate, and watching our favorite holiday films. Year after year, we turn on the classics and invite the Grinch, Kevin McAllister, and Buddy into our homes without hesitation. We can always count on them to bring a good time and spread holiday cheer. If you’re looking for some new festive faces this holiday season, both Netflix and Hulu have released holiday original films just in time for your celebrations. But will Netflix’s Holidate and Hulu’s Happiest Season become part of the usual holiday line-up? Should you watch them or stream How the Grinch Stole Christmas (conveniently available on Netflix) for the third time this month?
Sick of her family asking why she’s single every holiday, Sloane (Emma Roberts) is desperate for a way out of spending another evening hunched over the kids’ table with her third glass of wine. Conveniently nearby, Jackson (Luke Bracey) - an Australian man that is too hot to be gallivanting around Evanston, Illinois - has his own frustrations with his love life and its impact on his holiday celebrations. The day after Christmas, Sloane and Jackson meet on the returns line at a nondescript department store in the mall. After exchanging some pithy banter and immediately connecting over their holiday struggles, Sloane explains to Jackson (and everyone watching the movie) the concept of a “holidate”: someone you bring to holiday gatherings to elude prying questions about your love life and spend the holidays with to avoid being alone. He suggests they be each other’s holidates, and their journey begins!
From Christmas, to Cinco de Mayo, and back to Christmas again, Holidate follows the pair across the year’s holidays and events as they become pals and inevitably fall in love (this isn’t a spoiler, this is a romantic comedy). With plenty of hiccups, ups & downs, and laughs along the way, it’s a decent movie that is exactly what it’s intended to be: a holiday rom-com. It hits all of the expected marks (corny, cute, totally predictable) while following an unsurprising story arc: two people meet by chance, accidentally fall in love, get into a huge fight that threatens the existence of their relationship, and finally live happily ever after following a loud, public declaration of wrongdoings and undeniable love!
This isn’t a bad thing; Holidate is well-executed and well-cast. Emma Roberts is relatable with her emotional unavailability; Luke Bracey is the perfect knock-off Liam Hemsworth; Kristin Chenoweth provides the right amount of quirky comedic relief.
Holidate takes a familiar plot and places it in a unique backdrop. Is it a groundbreaking holiday film? Definitely not. Is it better than the classics? Also a no! But it’s an enjoyable, amusing story that’s distinct from other holiday rom-com tales, making it a solid alternative for those looking for something new.
2020 is the year of new holiday movies starring LGBTQ characters in lead and supporting roles, and we’re here for it. A few movies in particular made headlines for not only featuring LGBTQ characters and storylines, but for being centered around same-sex couples. The Hallmark Channel recently released The Christmas House: a complete 180 from pulling an ad featuring a pair of brides kissing during the 2019 holiday season. Lifetime's The Christmas Setup came out on December 12th, and Hulu premiered the highly anticipated Happiest Season over Thanksgiving weekend.
Happiest Season stirred excitement for countless reasons, including its show-stopping cast (Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Mary Steenburgen, Dan Levy, to name a few), the promise of a new take on holiday films, and for telling the story of a lesbian couple celebrating the holidays. Quite the opposite of Holidate, Happiest Season takes a story new to the holiday genre and places it in a very familiar backdrop: grown children returning to their family home for the holidays, along with their partners and siblings, getting into predicaments in their hometown, and inevitably airing out some family drama to ultimately resolve it and become closer than they were before in an approximately 90-minute bow-tied package. In Happiest Season, Harper and her girlfriend Abby jingle-bell-rock their way to Harper’s parents' house only for Abby to discover en route that Harper isn’t out in her hometown, and no one in her family knows about their relationship.
The primary plot of Harper navigating coming out to her conservative, image-obsessed family is unexplored territory in holiday films, yet the subplots of family disconnect and drama stemming from everyone being together again are pretty standard. There’s a bit of mixed messaging: at one moment, we’re beginning to understand Harper’s struggles and empathizing with Abby’s predicament, and the next we’re thrown back into the usual holiday movie shenanigans (sliding off of a roof, ice skating, awkward family pictures). It feels at times that Happiest Season is straddling multiple genres and film identities: is it a queer story that tells of the challenges of coming to terms with oneself and doing so in a less-than supportive environment? Is it a holiday movie that’s destined to have a predictable, Christmas-cookie-cutter happy ending? Or is it both? This conflict almost parallels Harper’s conflict in the film: she’s struggling with embracing her identity despite the risks associated with doing so, while masking who she is in order to fit the mold of the perfectly poised politician’s daughter. She oscillates between her authentic self and manufactured self; similarly, the story is dichotomously an honest coming-out narrative and a manufactured holiday rom-com.
Happiest Season is a coming-out arc with a Hallmark ending. Thoroughly joked about on social media, viewers arrived at the end of the film rooting for Abby and Riley (Harper’s ex-girlfriend played flawlessly by Aubrey Plaza) instead of Abby and Harper. In a holiday rom-com, the love story lacking universal buy-in for the central couple that we know will end up together is a major pitfall! The all-too-perfect ending doesn’t feel true to the characters or the story. Moments Abby shared with Riley and best friend John (Dan Levy) were often more engaging to watch than those (far and few between) featuring Harper and Abby. The lack of warm and fuzzy head-over-heels moments between the couple may actually diverge more from the holiday rom-com playbook than the other elements of the movie. This is understandable, considering the majority of the story takes place in environments where the pair simply cannot share these moments. Additionally, Abby is developed much more as a character than Harper is, which further takes a toll on audience investment in their relationship. Still, Kristen Stewart shines as Abby: her reserved awkwardness is endearing and fits the role like a stocking - erm, glove. Mackenzie Davis skillfully executes the rather challenging role of Harper. The pair work together well as love interests (why is their height difference so adorable?), but the story fails to provide viewers the time and circumstances to fall in love with their love.
Critics and fans were left wondering if it would have been better to fully subvert the holiday genre with a movie that disregards the tropes and expectations of holiday films, or to simply feature a traditional holiday storyline centered around an LGBTQ couple (similar to the way Schitt’s Creek doesn’t make queerness the story, but rather tells a love story that happens to be about the love between two men).
Expectations and outcomes aside, Happiest Season is a witty, charming, and refreshing take on the holiday classics. It broke records for Hulu, garnering the highest viewership numbers for any Hulu original movie in addition to attracting a sizable amount of new subscribers to the streaming platform - more than any other previous feature title, according to Variety. It is undeniably a success for Hulu, a pioneer in LGBTQ filmmaking, and a solid holiday movie.
If you haven’t seen either yet, both are worth the watch. They’re funny, relatable, merry, and bright! You’ll definitely laugh, and maybe even cry, while watching. As one of the first (of hopefully many) holiday films breaking heteronormative boundaries by being about a same-sex couple, Happiest Season may very well become a holiday staple; Holidate lacks the same shelf life. Plus, we will never grow tired of seeing Kristen Stewart, Dan Levy, AND Aubrey Plaza’s faces simultaneously on our screens.
Outside of future holiday staple status, is one movie better than the other? It’s hard to say. Holidate has the much less complex task of telling a story we’re very familiar and comfortable with, and does so with ease. Happiest Season presents us with a narrative we aren’t used to seeing in holiday films while striving to resemble one. It’s hard to criticize the firsts of something so unprecedented: we’re only at the beginning of a new age in queer storytelling. Naturally, the first major film to come out (pun intended) in this space isn’t going to be perfect, it isn’t going to hit every mark, but it opens the door for future filmmakers and storytellers to continue to redefine the landscape of holiday films in years to come.
The general public doesn’t have a clear favorite. Comparing the two side by side, reception of Happiest Season skews more positive, though it’s a mixed bag.
Sounds like you’ll have to watch both and decide for yourselves which you enjoyed more. Happy holidays & merry streaming!
Written by Kayla Jimenez
Edited by Jake Zall & Nick Mandala