I don’t know about you, but as the holiday season winds down, I find myself scrambling to cram in viewings of my favorite Christmas movies, both older classics like “Miracle on 34th Street,” “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” as well as newer releases such as “Love Actually,” “Four Christmases” and “Happiest Season.” The latter, a 2020 Hulu original directed and co-written by Hollywood multihyphenate Clea DuVall, sees Pittsburgh native Abby Holland (Kristen Stewart) heading to the nearby suburban childhood home of her girlfriend, Harper Caldwell (Mackenzie Davis), for the holidays with the intention of proposing on Christmas morning. The only glitch? Harper has yet to come out to her conservative family and, at the last minute, decides to pass Abby off as her orphaned roommate, with the latter only reluctantly agreeing to the charade because, as she says, “It’s five days. How bad can it be?” The answer? Very, very bad, of course, as the couple stumbles their way through a succession of highly-awkward family functions, severely testing the limits of their relationship.
Though the storyline can be sad and frustrating at times – and the ending is somewhat contentious – “Happiest Season” makes for an enjoyable watch, thanks mainly to Stewart’s deeply engaging performance, as well as those of Dan Levy and Aubrey Plaza, who shine in standout supporting roles as John and Riley, respective friends of Abby and Harper.
Produced by Sony’s Tri-Star Pictures, the flick was shot in early 2020, shortly before Covid shut down the film industry for the better part of a year, and was originally “poised to make history as the first holiday romantic comedy about a same-sex couple from a major Hollywood studio,” according to Variety. While the pandemic derailed those plans, as well as the movie’s theatrical release, “Happiest Season” didn’t miss a beat! Sony instead sold the production to Hulu and it made its streaming debut to record numbers, “attaining the best viewership for any original film on the service in its opening weekend and attracting more new subscribers than any other previous feature title.”
“Happiest Season” is notable for its Steel City backdrop, as well. Initially set in New York, the filmmakers were forced to switch gears due to budgetary concerns, ultimately opting to utilize Pittsburgh and its environs to stand in for the Big Apple instead. Once the team arrived on the scene, though, plans changed once again. DuVall tells the Set Decorators Society of America, “Though the original idea was that we would shoot Pittsburgh for NY, once I started getting the location photos back, I was like, ‘Wow, Pittsburgh is such a cool place, and we don’t see it very much, so why not embrace all of the gifts that Pittsburg has to offer? Let’s shoot Pittsburgh for Pittsburgh.’”
The city provided some idyllic holiday scenery, with the production making use of such spots as The Vandal in Lawrenceville, where Abby grabs coffee with John early in the story. The eatery was actually a fateful find for DuVall. As she recounts to SDSA, “We had gone to a bunch of coffee shops that didn’t quite feel right, and then we stopped to have lunch during our scout, and while we were sitting in that restaurant, I suddenly realized, ‘Obviously, this is the perfect place.’” The Belmont Complex in Kittanning also makes an appearance as the site where the Caldwell sisters engage in a highly competitive skate. The intersection of California and Cleveland Avenues in Avalon was transformed into Duboistown’s famed Candy Cane Lane, where Abby and Harper take a tour of Christmas lights in the film’s opening. And the two women grab dinner with Harper’s family at Tudor Hall at the Chartiers Country Club shortly after arriving in town.