This story contains spoilers for Happiest Season, streaming on Hulu November 25.
Standing out in a cast that includes Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Victor Garber, Dan Levy, Alison Brie, and Mary Steenburgen is a herculean task for any actor. Ironically, it’s the same challenge that Mary Holland’s character, Jane, faces in Happiest Season. In a family full of stressed out, unhappy overachievers, she is the only content outcast, the source of comic relief but also the steel spine that holds everybody up. Likewise, Holland’s airy, hilarious and touching performance is an undeniable highlight of the movie, a constant comedy foil that also delivers a surprisingly touching emotional core.
Happiest Season, on Hulu November 25, centers around Abby (Stewart) and Harper (Davis). After a year of dating, the couple is ready to take the next step, and Harper invites Abby to spend Christmas with her straight-laced family in an idyllic snowy Pennsylvania suburb. There’s just one catch: Harper hasn’t come out to her parents and two sisters yet. Instead, she’s told them Abby is her orphaned roommate, who has nowhere else to go for the holidays. Oh, and as far as they’re concerned, Abby is also straight. Over the course of their five-day stay, Abby and Harper’s relationship will be tested as they navigate the choppy waters of shame and secrets, trying to find a way forward together.
But while Harper and Abby are undeniably the film’s focus, the action is rounded out by a cast of fully-fleshed out supporting characters, which help bring this tinseled-out world to life: There’s Ted (Garber), Harper’s father and a local politician running for mayor on a platform that supports “family values;” her mother, Tipper (Steenburgen), an uptight perfectionist whose love for her daughters can sometimes feel conditional on what they bring to the family Instagram; eldest sister Sloane (Brie), a former high-powered lawyer who quit to start a gift-basket business with her husband, and who constantly competes with Harper for their parents’ attention; Riley (Aubrey Plaza), Harper’s secret high school girlfriend who counsels Abby on how best to deal with her; John (Levy), Abby’s best friend and pet sitter; and of course, Jane.
A middle child by excellence, she’s an unlikely hero in this story. But in Holland’s hands, a character that could easily have been purely ridiculous comic relief is filled with nuance and depth. Everyone constantly dismisses Jane as weird and untalented — except when the router’s acting up and they need her to fix it — and yet, she’s the only one who seems genuinely happy. She is who she is and she accepts it, and thrives even as her family overlooks her passion projects (a fantasy book that sounds like it would genuinely send a gazillion copies) as less than impressive.
Holland co-wrote the script with director Clea Duvall, whom she met while filming season 6 of HBO’s Veep. “I was very drawn to her both because I’m a longtime fan of her work, but also we just had really great chemistry,” Holland told Refinery29 ahead of the film’s release. “We would joke around in the moments before the table read started and after.”
Soon after, the two went for coffee, and DuVall laid out her idea and asked Holland if she wanted to collaborate. “I was completely on board. I loved the story — it was so beautiful and important,” she said.
In a way, Harper’s coming out journey is mirrored to varying degrees by those closest to her. Her fear of showing her true self to her family is rooted in the belief that she has to conform to the expectations they set out. Everything comes crashing into the open (literally) during a climactic Christmas Eve party. The pressure dam bursts, and the sisters turn on each other, only to realize that they all want the same thing: To take up the space that rightfully belongs to them. Harper wants to be accepted as a lesbian, Sloane wants her parents to see her as something more than the mother of a picture-perfect family, and Jane just wants to be included, and seen as the genuinely talented and satisfied person that she is, even if her version of success doesn’t match her family’s.
Still, as someone who has not experienced a coming out moment, Holland was conscious of her own limitations in telling certain aspects of this story. “When it came to handling the emotional arc of this movie and the climax for all these characters, I was so grateful that I got to understand and watch Clea so gracefully and with so much care, address that experience in the emotional heart of the movie,” she said. “It was really moving and impactful for me.”
Refinery29: This story could potentially have been told in a context other than “coming home for the holidays.” Why was it important to make it a Christmas movie?
“Christmas and holiday movies are so important to us. They’re very formative growing up, but then they become our tradition, they become a part of how we enjoy the holidays, how we celebrate being with family and friends. They’re comforting, and it’s also a genre that is so well-established, so well-known and beloved, and Clea and I both are fans. So, to be able to really embrace that genre and create something that is so universally relatable and tell it through a new lens, with a new perspective. The themes that center around holidays: family, love, support, gratitude — all of that we wanted to have be the backdrop of this really important moment in people’s lives.”
Let’s talk about the Christmas Eve party, specifically that moment when Harper smashes Jane’s beautiful painting was genuinely heartbreaking. I gasped; it was genuinely heartbreaking!
“It was really good. Clea and the production designer made such a great choice, because in the same way that with comedic characters in a romantic comedy it can be very easy to just have them deliver a joke and then that’s it. Not give them an arc of their own, or a three-dimensional story to play. I think that was done with all the supporting characters in this movie, but with the painting, I think it would have been so easy to go with, ‘Oh the painting looks ridiculous.’”
I was totally waiting for her to unwrap this gigantic painting, only to unveil a squiggle. But the finished product is actually amazing!
“That would have gotten a laugh, for sure. But it made it so much more meaningful then when it got destroyed. She really did put so much time into it. She made this incredible piece of art. And the other thing about Jane is that she is talented, and her family eventually finally recognizes it, and celebrates it. But her having this free- spirited energy, it could very easily veer into, She’s just this ridiculous person. She thinks she’s talented and she’s not, and that’s the joke of her. But I think it’s so much more interesting that she is actually talented, and has so much to offer if people would give her the space to do so.”
In the film, Jane stresses the importance of world-building as the reason she’s been working on the same fantasy novel for 10 years. The supporting characters are so crucial to this story. How did you come up with Jane?
“Early on, we wanted Harper to have sisters, because it’s such a rich dynamic to play in a family. And we knew that we wanted one of the sisters to not totally fit in with this restrained, buttoned-up family. Once we decided that, I said right away that I wanted to play her. So, we wrote Jane with me in mind. We really shaped her — I feel like there are so many aspects of Jane that are true of me. I’m not sure how much of that was intentional, or just organically happened but… I’m a huge fan of fantasy fiction, I’m a real peacekeeper, I want to make sure everybody’s happy and everybody’s comfortable, I have a way with routers...I have a special touch! So, I think she really is close to me in so many ways. To have her against this backdrop of everyone else being very restrained, very poised, really made her stand out.”
Her journey seems to parallel Harper’s coming out in a way — Jane’s arc is about asserting herself as the family weirdo.
“This movie is a lot about self-acceptance and being true to your authentic self, and Jane is that. Jane is so wholeheartedly who she is and unapologetically so. And because she’s that, she’s more than happy to let other people take the space in a room. She gets pushed to the sidelines all the time and she’s totally fine with it. But it does have a cumulative effect, and the moment we built to with her, of her eventually taking that space and defending herself and the fact that nobody in her family takes her seriously or gives her the same level of respect that they do each other, that was a very satisfying moment to write for Jane and then also to play.”
Obviously the movie is coming out during a fraught time, when so many people can’t be with their families. What do you hope they take away from it?
“I hope people are able to find a familiar warmth and comfort that we look for in holiday movies, especially at this time when you aren’t able to be with the people you want to be with. And I hope people feel seen in watching this, I hope there’s representation of this experience and this story, I believe, will reach a lot of people. But I also hope we’re able to reach people who might not have had an understanding of this, who might have been closed off to what this story is trying to tell. I hope we’re able to create an understanding in some people.”