by Douglas Messerli
Clea DuVall and Mary Holland (screenplay), Clea DuVall (director) Happiest Season / 2020
Michael J. Murray (screenplay), Pat Mills (director) The Christmas Setup / 2020
Jake Helgren (writer and director) Dashing in December / 2020
It’s the day before Christmas, and for weeks before this special day of anticipation family-friendly networks—Hallmark, Hulu, Lifetime, Disney, Paramount and other such television producers I usually try to evade—have been airing their numerous annual Christmas movies.
I have nothing against family or family values, although in my experience as a gay man—as I’m sure it was for thousands like me—things were always a bit “dodgy” at holiday time. I seldom returned home for Christmas since my husband Howard did not like to travel and my parents, in those long-ago days, were themselves uneasy about having me and Howard to Christmas dinner. Even entertaining me alone at holidays seemed to be something to endure instead of simply enjoying it as a family event. My brother and sister showed up at their door with parcels of children I did not.
So “going home for Christmas,” a recurrent theme in the Christmas movie genre, was not particularly something with which I identified, let alone with the saccharine love stories, past and present, that dotted the landscape of such movies. Feeling “different” throughout most of my high school years, I had no close friends—at least none who had settled down in my Iowa hometown. Certainly, I had no childhood romances to re-ignite and even with which to stoke my curiosity as these Christmas film features inevitably had. And I had little nostalgia—a crucial ingredient in the Holiday film genre—for the town in which I grew up. I had had no heterosexual experiences whatsoever, so the thrill of the inevitable Christmas kiss meant little to my lips. Finally, after living for years in California, snow no longer held the wonders it necessarily must for any card-carrying fan of holiday-themed flicks. A Christmas away from Howard was just a lonely and fairly forlorn affair.
Those years are long past, however, and Howard and I developed our own special Christmas traditions, often celebrating Hannukah before or after trimming our Christmas tree, and always planning for—Howard’s favorite holiday activity he reminded just yesterday—and cooking an enormous Christmas dinner for just the two of us.
This year, with the shadows of Trump, COVID, and Howard’s own health problems, we’ve decided against the tree, gifts (we certainly don’t need more possessions) and even a “big” dinner.
But something has changed, as TV newspaper commentators have noted, in the landscape of these Norman Rockwell-like portraits of holiday life in the US. As Erik Piepenburg put it in The New York Times, if “leading men just don’t kiss each other in the conservative fraternity of holiday TV movies...they do now. ...This year there are six new holiday-themed films with gay and lesbian leading characters, including Happiest Season (Hulu), The Christmas House (Hallmark Channel), and The Christmas Setup (Lifetime). In this chaste genre, that’s milestone.”
In Happiest Season Abby Holland (Kristen Stewart) and Harper Caldwell (Mackenzie Davis) are girlfriends who are close to celebrating their first year together. As required in these films Abby is the one who is allergic to the Christmas season, particularly since her parents have died, so, naturally just to cheer her up, Harper invites her to celebrate the holiday with her family in her hometown, which might allow her the perfect opportunity to introduce her to her parents and, just maybe, propose to her on Christmas morning. So far the plot lines up with the standard heterosexual-normative patterns of the genre. But since they’re lesbians, there has to be a rub: Harper admits to Abby that she hasn’t actually “come out” to parents, particularly since her father is running for mayor of the city. She promises that she will reveal her secret just after Christmas, begging Abby to pretend to act like her straight roommate through the holiday festivities.
We now know what the required “complications” are in this film, particularly when Abby is introduced to Harper’s father (Victor Garber), her “unusual” sister Jane (Mary Holland), and her tightly wound mother, Tipper (Mary Steenburgen), to say nothing of her lover’s highly competitive older sister, Sloane (Alison Brie).
But Abby has her own past in this town, and is almost relieved when her old friend John (Dan Levy) arrives to pick her up for a night on the town. Harper begs Abby to stay at home and the two girls are about to make up and kiss when Sloane catches sight of what’s going on and threatens to expose them to the family. She has her own secret, however. Her husband Eric and she are preparing to divorce.
When the two sisters fight at the Christmas party, Sloane reveals to the family and their guests that her younger sister is a lesbian, which Harper immediately denies.
Heartbroken for the denial of her love, Abby takes up John’s offer as they share their experiences of growing up queer. Abby has been lovingly accepted by her parents, while John’s father forced him out of his own house. Love and openly admitting that love are two different things, John advises. There is always a loving friend helping to keep things on track in these holiday scenarios.
An unnecessary coda scrolls one year into the future when the two girls are engaged, the youngest sister has become a novelist, and Harper’s father has won his mayoral election. This new Christmas the family attends It's a Wonderful Life, proving, apparently, that despite all the doubts and fears one has, life is beautiful.*
As you see in my discussion above, plot is the most important element of these Christmas tales. Everything is in the details of how the season helps to save them from making the wrong decisions and the push and pull of these minor diversions—we know from the beginning that everything will work out—are what keep us watching. As one commentator observed: These holiday movies are sort of like “porn, without the sex.” I guess, I’d add that those back and forth movements of the story replace sex. Nonetheless, I’ll try in describing the Lifetime’s network The Christmas Setup in a more abbreviated manner.
In some ways that’s easy in this work simply because the two handsome leads, real life gay married men, Ben Lewis and Blake Lee, playing Hugo and Patrick, are high school friends. Indeed Hugo had a secret crush on Patrick back then. So when the now lawyer returns home to Milwaukee with his friend Madelyn (Ellen Wong) in tow, Hugo’s mother, Kate (Fran Dresher) sets-up a seemingly accidental meeting with Patrick, who’s just completed from a successful phase of his life in Silicon Valley. Note: in this genre, evidently it’s important that one if not both of the leading men (and women) have money since it immediately removes all other possible obstacles that might stand in the way of love.
Much of the film is even spent on how to find the ways to sustain their relationship, given their careers. And, as in all of these films, there are doubts and tribulations, in this case Hugo’s friend Maddie playing the advisor.
As always, finally, there is a last hurdle to be jumped, in this case in the form of a major promotion for Hugo if only he moves away to London.
Of course, he makes a last moment decision, announcing to the entire train station that he loves Patrick and isn’t about to leave him. In this film, they even kiss twice. And unlike almost any Christmas story before it, writer Michael J. Murray includes a scene featuring a drag queen, Canadian performer Lucinda Miu. Moreover, even the character’s return home meant something to me this time around, since Milwaukee was for a short while my hometown.
True to its genre John Helgren’s Paramount’s Dashing in December features a lead character who returns home, in this case Wyatt Burwall’s (Peter Porte) first visit in five years to the paradisical ranch in Colorado on which he grew up. But Wyatt, now a rich investment fund manager living in New York arrives as the villain of the piece, determining to convince his mother Deb (Andie MacDowell) to sell the cash-eating monster. He’s been paying the mortgages and taxes for several years, and is convinced his ranch-loving mother would be better off living in the city.
What he hasn’t been prepared for is the fact that, in his absence, Deb has hired a new hand, Heath (Juan Pablo Di Pace) who lovingly cares for the horses, including Wyatt’s horse Dasher, and totally enjoys his work of taking children on a sleigh ride through the ranch’s back acres, the ranch’s only money-making effort. Everyone, including another farm hand, Blake Berry (Caroline Harris)—Wyatt’s high school girlfriend—and even the Sleepy Hollow natives love the hunky ranch hand Heath. So naturally, the prodigal son, now almost an interloper, and Heath spar almost from first sight.
We’re told by Blake and by his sympathetic mother, that Wyatt is a good and kind man, but it’s hard to detect how this gay man from the Big Apple is going to eventually find himself in love with the gay Columbian-born worker Heath. Of course, it wouldn’t be the first film to feature a couple who fight halfway through the movie before realizing they’re in love. Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn spent most of Bringing Up Baby at each other’s throats. But that was different since the gay nerd was resisting the lures in that film of a lesbian siren. Here we’re almost afraid that our two leading gay boys won’t get an opportunity to shake hands and wrestle things out, let alone get in a kiss.
Obviously, Wyatt has conflicting feelings about the old homestead, which we gradually discover he too dearly loved until the death of his beloved father. Blake, this film’s resident advisor, tries to explain to Heath just how difficult it was for the good-looking and popular school kid to come out as gay in the small town in which he grew up. Since Blake, his former girlfriend and school prom queen Blake is black and Wyatt still seems popular and accepted as the gay man he announced he was during his graduation speech, however, we have to wonder just how narrow-minded these small town folk truly were.
In Dashing these two beauties even have the opportunity to see one another half-naked, Heath in a towel, Wyatt in his undies—a moment in this picture postcard territory that might make even a feisty Midwestern matriarch blush. That may be as close to sex as any Christmas celebratory film ever gets.
And then, of course, these men do fall in love, Heath setting up an entire wonderland ballroom in which to court Wyatt, dancing for the very first time in his life, so he claims, with another man. The kiss that follows is so memorable that even I shed a tear. So, it’s finally happened, I said to myself; gay men have come home to roost even in the fantasy imaginations of the heterosexual homebodies who watch these annual sentimental ditties.
It takes him a while to realize that it is he who lacks the first two, using his money and another investor’s money to buy himself back into the love of Deb, Blake, and Heath by turning the ranch into a corporate farm as well as retaining it as a Christmas amusement spot and place to board their horses. Even his neglected horse Dasher grows to love him again, as the would-be farmer dresses up in cowboy duds to get closer to the heart of the man with whom he hopes to spend the rest of life. I just hope he never learns that in the old West the farmer and the cowman were seldom friends.
These three works are carefully-wrought machines built to provoke sentiment and little else. Despite the often excellent direction and acting of these films the genre allows for only one thematic to be expressed: celebration. Yet, for a few moments at least, I actually had the opportunity to share in that celebration. Like The New York Times critic described it, when the leading men and women kissed, I gasped. And I shed a few tears just out of joy for being seated at the table without having to explain why I was there.
*The beloved Capra film is also a subtheme in The Christmas Setup, which is truly appropriate for that film since the way I read the film is that argues that all you need to survive is money provided by a few equally poor friends. For the hero of the film it’s not really in the spirit of Christmas giving since he’s the recipient in this case, even though we know that he’s been the benefactor for most of his life. Still, sorry to say, money is at the center of this work.
Los Angeles, December 24, 2020
Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (December 2020).