Movie Reviews: Happiest Season (2020) & Uncle Frank (2020)

Now Available

'Tis the season of giving... and the season of needing a rest. The weeks between Thanksgiving all the way up through Hanukkah and/or Christmas and New Year's are often dubbed the happiest time of the year. But it's also undeniably the most stressful period of the calendar year as well. And this is particularly true for those of us returning to our childhood homes for the holidays as we come face-to-face with family, old friends, and all of the judgments and pressures that go along with sudden reunions with the people we were once closest to in life, the ones who know us the best, that is if they even know us at all.

Although there's a tendency to revert back to old patterns and behavior when surrounded by nostalgia, not too many of us are the same people today that we were in high school, and sometimes it's hard to make loved ones see you not for the child you were in the past but the adult you are today. And while this might be anything from annoying to awkward for a majority of heterosexuals, it can be absolutely terrifying and life-changing to LGBTQ adults who haven't come out to their family and/or friends as just the act of returning home to old wounds (and a place where you must push that part of you deep down), can be traumatic.

Fittingly, two brand new films releasing onto streaming platforms the day before Thanksgiving tackle the hopes and fears of coming out head-on, first in co-writer and director Clea DuVall's comedy "Happiest Season," which takes place during Christmas week, and the second, which is primarily set at a funeral nearly fifty years ago in writer-director Alan Ball's drama "Uncle Frank." 

An earnest and affable lightweight comedy that – thanks to its dynamic cast of Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Dan Levy, Mary Steenburgen, Aubrey Plaza, and Alison Brie – has quickly become one of the most anticipated holiday releases of 2020, "Happiest Season," plays like an overlong, sweet yet slightly stale sitcom.

Impulsively inviting her beloved partner Abby (Stewart) home for the holidays during a romantic evening out, it's only once they're in the car heading towards Harper's (Davis) family home that she confesses that she's actually never told her parents and two sisters that she's gay. Although initially shocked, Abby agrees to play the orphan roommate with no place to go since the charade will only last five days. Predictably, however, things get out of hand almost as soon as they arrive when Harper's parents (Steenburgen and Victor Garber) try reuniting her with her high school boyfriend (Jake McDorman), only for the women to bump into Harper's first-ever girlfriend (Plaza) less than five minutes later as well.

Cliched and largely laughless, as novel and (incredibly) welcome as it is to watch a gay-themed movie jump through the same formulaic hoops that we so often see in made-for-cable-television holiday romances this time of year, sadly, "Happiest Season" is a work to admire and politely smile through more than it is one to wholeheartedly enjoy. From a scene that finds Stewart literally stuck in a closet to another one that features her best friend, "Schitt's Creek" co-creator and star Dan Levy calling to ask where he could buy a lookalike fish to replace the one that we gather the inexperienced pet sitter has accidentally killed, a majority of the movie's jokes feel as tired as they do uninspired. 

Daring to make Harper a flawed and selfish protagonist whom we discover will lie to anyone to conceal her true sexual identity, "Happiest Season" gets points for working in a startlingly sad backstory surrounding her relationship with Plaza's Riley, although their characters are shortchanged a vital conversation where they can truly clear the air.

Wrapping things up in a neat bow, even if there are a few other scenes and discussions between our main ensemble cast of characters that might've strengthened the film as something more human and true than it is a largely cookie-cutter, small screen style comedy, the actors are all terrific. Unfortunately, DuVall and co-writer/co-star Mary Holland's script, which leaves much to be desired, doesn't know how to use them properly. Nonetheless, a mildly pleasant holiday diversion that you can digest right along with your pumpkin pie, even if it isn't a new repeat-worthy holiday classic, hopefully, Hulu's "Happiest Season" will earn enough viewers that we'll see some stronger, funnier LGBTQ comedies in the years to come.

Less of a holiday-centric offering than it is an offering served up for viewers during the holidays on Amazon Prime, "Uncle Frank" is a heartfelt period drama from writer-director Alan Ball that, in addition to sharing the same theme of coming out to one's family that we saw in "Happiest Season," rivals DuVall's film in terms of its enviable, first-rate cast. 

Led by the versatile, acclaimed "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," "The Da Vinci Code," and "Margin Call" actor Paul Bettany as the titular Uncle Frank, Ball's film is a who's who of scene-stealing character actors, including audience favorites Steve Zahn, Margo Martindale, and Judy Greer.

The apple of the eye of his niece Beth ("It" franchise and "Sharp Objects" star Sophia Lillis), Frank Bledsoe (Bettany) has traded his conservative, small-town South Carolina roots for New York where he works as an English professor at NYU in the late 1960s/early '70s. Following in his footsteps by attending NYU, Beth soon learns that although her uncle puts on a great show with a lesbian friend posing as his live-in girlfriend, he's actually been in a relationship with his sweet, funny Middle Eastern boyfriend Walid aka Wally (played by Peter Macdissi) for the past ten years.

Forced to return home for the funeral of his own disapproving father (Stephen Root), whom we deduce most likely knew the truth about his son's sexual orientation before anyone else, Frank drives Beth down to South Carolina. Determined to be there to support the love of his life because he knows just how much trauma will be waiting for him in the south, Wally trails behind the pair and soon joins them on the road trip, which becomes a journey into Frank's past. 

A film that's as much about Frank's need to finally let the people he loves into that part of himself that he keeps hidden as it is about his need to forgive himself and make peace with a devastating turn of events in his past for which he still feels responsible, while "Happiest Season" addressed past transgressions too, this film is vastly more sincere overall. Though still bursting at the seams with cliches and contrivances that should be far beyond the otherwise amazingly talented Ball (whose explorations into human behavior made "Six Feet Under" one of HBO's best twenty-first-century shows), thanks to the conviction and pathos of its top-notch leads, "Uncle Frank" works much better than it should.

Hindered by a rushed final act that races through an emotional payoff that it doesn't fully earn, as wonderful as it always is to see Bettany in something new that pushes him beyond his work in the Marvel franchise, the real heart of "Uncle Frank" is in Peter Macdissi's performance as Wally. Elevating an otherwise stereotypical role as the tormented Frank's saintly boyfriend, Macdissi's magnetic, cheeky delivery of certain lines – such as when he lectures Beth that niceness is used by her family to hide things – immediately wins us over. Likewise, in just one scene where he calls his mother back in Saudi Arabia from a motel phone booth, which is contrasted by Frank's return back to the motel with Beth after a wake, we realize how much more interesting the film might've been if we'd been following not Frank but Wally all along.

Disappointingly, you can nearly set your watch to certain revelations that seem to hit at precisely the same intervals that most screenwriters well-versed in the Syd Field three-act structure will recognize. However, the film's tenderness and its message about the importance of acceptance and the way that we never fully get over the traumas that inadvertently shape us for better and/or worse still feels timely nearly fifty years after the film is set, as we watch this today in Trump's America. 

Comparing the two films, which I watched back to back, "Uncle Frank" is a much more solid and substantive work than "Happiest Season," even if it isn't nearly as light, airy, and easily digestible as Clea DuVall's comedy. While both films fail to push much past the bar of average overall, they still feel well-timed to their pre-holiday release, especially this year when we especially need entertainment during the pandemic. Perhaps more willing than ever to look past their shortcomings amid 2020's wrath, hopefully, these films will find an audience in viewers who either relate to their characters' struggles to let others see them as they really are or are eager to celebrate their willingness to do as the Christmas carol says and make the yuletide (a bit more) gay. 'Tis the season, after all.

Text ©2020, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reservedhttps://www.filmintuition.com  Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  Also, as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases made off my site through ad links. FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I may have received a review copy or screener link of this title to voluntarily decide to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique. Cookies Notice: This site incorporates tools (including advertiser partners and widgets) that use cookies and may collect some personal information to display ads tailored to you etc. Please be advised that neither Film Intuition nor its site owner has any access to this data beyond general site statistics (geographical region etc.) as your privacy is our main concern.