Movie Review ~ Happiest Season

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A young woman with a plan to propose to her girlfriend while at her family’s annual holiday party discovers her partner hasn’t yet come out to her conservative parents.

Stars: Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Dan Levy, Mary Holland, Victor Garber, Mary Steenburgen

Director: Clea DuVall

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 102 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  I wouldn’t say that I’ve been stuck on the same cycle of Christmas movies over the years but what I will admit is that I’ve attached myself to a select few holiday films that spoke to me as I grew older.  That’s because a number of Christmas films never really appealed to me as a person so I found it hard to relate to them, and it became more of a struggle as I got older.  I’m an only child and gay so watching movies with large family gatherings seeing everyone coming home with their husbands and wives started looking less like my life and more like a strange phony Christmas card.  So when it came to movies to watch over Christmas, I kept to the old standards and eschewed most of the newer ones, leaning toward any that focused on “different” families during the holidays.

Thankfully, as the world has evolved so have the entertainment options and that’s why a sizable shift has occurred in the offerings of the season.  Movies that show diverse families, gay couples, interracial relationships, the differently abled, autistic, etc. may not be there in droves but they are there and each year there are more of them.  Already this season we’ve had the fantastic Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey with its largely black cast appear and snuggle into the Netflix queues of many and now Hulu is presenting Happiest Season, a gay Christmas film from queer director/actress Clea DuVall (Argo).  Though originally targeted for a theatrical release, Hulu is debuting it on Thanksgiving and it should give audiences from all walks of life something to be grateful for in 2020.

Girlfriends Abby (Kristen Stewart, Personal Shopper) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis, Terminator: Dark Fate) have been living together for six months and Abby is ready to ask Harper to marry her.  Though not a fan of Christmas and without parents, she takes Harper’s last-minute invitation to her family’s home for the holidays as a sign that the time is right to make it official.  She has the ring and though her best friend John (Dan Levy, Admission) thinks marriage is archaic, wants to ask Harper’s dad for his blessing before popping the question in front of her family.  There’s just one tiny problem.  Harper hasn’t told her strait-laced family that she’s a lesbian and with her father about to start a run for mayor of their conservative town, she doesn’t think it wise to rock the boat during the holidays.

Against her better judgement and because Harper tells her this after they’re in the car and nearly there, Abby agrees to lie and pretend to just be Harper’s roommate for the duration of their stay.  Referred to as “the orphan” by Harper’s mom Tipper (Mary Steenburgen, Book Club), Abby is introduced to the rest of the family including dad Ted (Victor Garber, Sicario), and sisters Jane (Mary Holland, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, also a co-writer) and Sloane (Alison Brie, The Rental), each with their own secret or personal hang-up that will spill out over the next few days as they come together for festive gatherings.  As Abby watches Harper change when confronted with her judgmental family and their high standard expectations, she begins to question how much she actually knows the woman she fell in love with in the first place.  With Harper’s ex-boyfriend hanging around and a big family dinner approaching, can Abby still pop the question and will Harper be honest in front of her family and friends?

Fans of The Family Stone will find Happiest Season to be a not-so-distant relative in terms of style and tone and I half expected Sarah Jessica Parker’s character in that holiday film to show up in the final scene because she easily could have been a fourth sister in this tightly-wound family.  That film has its share of detractors (it took me several watches to truly appreciate it) but I don’t think Happiest Season will have trouble earning fans out of the gate.  DuVall and Holland have crafted a believable, tender, and often very funny film that applies just the right amount of emotion throughout.  It’s just serious enough to get a message on how each person’s coming out story is different and why support for that timeline is important and it’s humorous enough to land elevated comedy that isn’t your usual farce fare.

Still a rather new director, DuVall has an ease in her method that lends a grounded feel to the proceedings, helped immeasurably by a homerun cast.  I think we’ve all come to the agreement that Stewart is just bound to keep surprising audiences and she does it here again with the most relaxed, lived-in role I’ve seen her offer up in quite some time.  The naturalism is on such a different level that at times it feels like DuVall just happened to capture Stewart out and about, in her element.  If Davis comes off a little less successful, perhaps it’s only because she’s wearing several different masks throughout and we’re so on Abby’s side that every time Harper denies their relationship in public it pulls us further away from her.  Together, the two actresses create a believable picture of a couple in love and, even better, one that has settled into a flow with an ease about their interaction that comes across nicely.  That’s what makes the events while they’re at the house sting, because we can see how different Harper is acting in front of people that don’t know her for who she really is.

It’s always a gamble when a co-writer is also a significant supporting character and while Holland has given herself a character with some of the most outright funny bits in the film (and she’s quite funny, make no mistake), she knows when to point the spotlight away as well.  Garber’s role is a bit thankless, as is Brie’s, mostly because at the outset they are outwardly the most staid characters so it’s good news that Steenburgen’s chipper Tipper is such a joy no matter what she’s doing onscreen.  Both Levy and Aubrey Plaza (The To Do List) have smaller roles than are advertised and while Levy is basically doing an extension of the character he played on Schitt’s Creek (and gets the movie’s most genuine moment of clarity), Plaza blessedly is tasked with a more serious vibe that works nicely for the usually comically obtuse actress.  The only awkward moment in the movie is a very ill-advised sequence when Stewart is interrogated by two mall security officers played by Lauren Lapkus (Jurassic World) and Timothy Simons (The Hustle) – it’s totally unfunny and pointless, feeling like a favor DuVall did on behalf of two friends that needed a paycheck.

Some will skip Happiest Season because they don’t agree with what is represented within and that’s unfortunate.  Unfortunate they can’t see that love is love and unfortunate they are missing a well-constructed holiday film with strong performances and confident direction.  I can easily see this one making its way onto a rotation of Christmas films in my house and, paired with The Family Stone, a nice alternative to the overly maudlin cookie-cutter stereotypical products that are delivered yearly.  It’s time to think bigger and more inclusive and Happiest Season happily opens its arms wide to welcome all.

Movie Review ~ Uncle Frank

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Accompanied by his teenage niece, a gay literature professor reluctantly returns home to attend his father’s funeral.

Stars: Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, Peter Macdissi, Judy Greer, Stephen Root, Steve Zahn, Lois Smith, Margo Martindale, Jane McNeil, Michael Perez

Director: Alan Ball

Rated: R

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: You know how they say that some movies you can tell were based on stage plays?  There are some movies you can also tell were based on books so I kept having to remind myself throughout Amazon Prime’s Uncle Frank that this was an original screenplay by writer/director Alan Ball and did not originate from a novel.  Ball, you may recall, was the creative force behind such family-centered dramas as the Oscar-winning American Beauty and the iconic Six Feet Under for HBO where he also adapted Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse novels into True Blood.  There are a number of instances throughout Uncle Frank that feel as if the hand of a novelist, rather than a filmmaker, is guiding the characters and that creates a strange awkwardness that may have worked on the page but doesn’t work as well when played out by actors.

Let’s step back for a second, though.  Ball came to write the 1970s-set Uncle Frank after learning his own father might have been gay long after he had passed away.  His father’s possible more-than-friendship with a deceased boy in the past mirrors a traumatic event in the life of Frank Bledsoe (Paul Bettany, Solo: A Star Wars Story) a 40ish man living in New York City with his partner Wally (Peter Macdissi).  Semi-estranged from his family, namely his father (Stephen Root, Bombshell) back in a small town in South Carolina, he’s kept his sexuality and boyfriend a secret from most of his relatives for fear of incurring their ultra-conservative judgement.  When he’s called home due to a family tragedy and Wally tags along, he has to decide whether to own up to who he is and free himself of this heavy burden or go on living a lie for the sake of the comfort of others.

The set-up has all the workings of your typical coming-to-terms drama that we’ve seen done before but the way Ball opts to switch things up is to have all of these events seen through the eyes of Frank’s young niece Beth Sophia Lillis (IT, IT: Chapter Two).  Fairly clueless to all of the nuances going on in the life of her sophisticated and respected uncle, she’s unfortunately not that interesting of a character to hang a narrator’s cap on.  When we first meet her, she’s a teenager more comfortable talking to her big-city uncle than her country cousins.  He encourages her to dream big and several years later she’s a NYU student that reconnects with Frank just as she embarks a few college “firsts”: boyfriend, drinking, etc.  Then the family needs them both to return home and they begin a road trip back and its during these hundreds of miles Beth begins to understand more of where Frank is coming from and the true depth to his relationship with Wally.

To his credit, Ball has cast Uncle Frank with an assortment of value-add Hollywood players that keep the film buoyed by their welcome presence.  In addition to Bettany, Lillis, and Macdissi, there’s Judy Greer (Halloween), a goofy hoot as Beth’s mom that has a tendency to mispronounce big words that she thinks sound fancier than they are, and Steve Zahn (Where’d You Go, Bernadette) as her average Joe dad perfectly content to be the son that doesn’t cause any trouble but happy to be noticed all the same.  The legendary Lois Smith (Lady Bird) is afforded a few nice zingers as Frank’s truth-speaking aunt and the never-not-great Margo Martindale (Mother’s Day) dependably delivers in the film’s get-out-your-hanky scene.

That’s where the trouble in Uncle Frank lies, though, that scene.  It’s a scene that feels satisfying in some way as a viewer but doesn’t feel correct in a realistic context of the location and time Ball has set his story.  This Kumbaya moment comes off as overly romanticized and false and while I appreciated it greatly and, yes, wiped away tears, when I really thought about it I knew it didn’t really make a lot of sense.  It’s things like that and how Ball insists on having Beth be the de facto filter and interpreter for the audience that keep Uncle Frank at a set distance from the viewer and never lets you get much closer.  Though it appears to be an inviting watch, ultimately it feels less personal and more of a clinical endeavor.  That’s far removed from Ball’s intention to explore his own father’s latent homosexuality that seemingly went unspoken throughout his life.

Eventually reaching its destination after a rocky journey, Uncle Frank had the cast and creatives to be a scenic tour into a slice of life family drama but winds up running out of gas.  That ghastly metaphor aside (and I do apologize profusely), there’s no harm meant in Uncle Frank and the performances by Bettany and especially Macdissi make this one worth a look.  Bettany is one of those actors that hangs by the fringe, always doing interesting work but rarely afforded opportunities like this to take center stage.  While Macdissi being Ball’s longtime partner and oft being cast in his projects may raise some eyebrows, his warm performance should cast any doubts of preferential casting aside.  The feeling lingers in my mind, however, that having Beth as the intrusive narrator proved a distraction and the film concluding with an overly tidy understanding robbed it of the deeper complexity and stronger message it could have achieved.