For DuVall, seeing Happiest Season be called a “gay holiday rom-com” is complicated. “It’s like, it’s this movie, but it’s this,” she said, drawing boxes in the air again. “So it’s not really this.” Yet, even with the baggage, the film has become shiny, tinsel-laden proof of how mainstream queer narratives can be. After all, the story of Abby and Harper isn’t just about coming out, but about two people feeling misunderstood by those they love the most. “I grew up watching movies with people who didn’t represent my life in any way, and I still connected with them, and I still cared about them,” DuVall said. “Creating a movie with LGBTQ characters in it can have the same impact, can reach people whose lives don’t look like that.”
Because of this, DuVall sees less risk going forward in telling queer stories in conventional spaces. If her own public coming-out could happen on her terms, then the weight of the label can fade too. When she, along with co-writer Holland and the producer Isaac Klausner shopped the script around to studios, many were “eager,” she remembered, to bring the story to the screen. And though there’s been a significant gap in mainstream gay storytelling, more studio films are on their way: The Ryan Murphy–produced The Prom hits Netflix this week, she pointed out, and the comedian Billy Eichner has a rom-com about a gay couple in the works that’s backed by Universal. So, DuVall concluded with a chuckle, “It’s not risky. If anything, it’s an asset to a film that it is something new. And then, eventually, it won’t be new.”
She would know; she’s seen how “eventually” works. Growing up, DuVall watched the TV show Facts of Life and saw herself in Jo Polniaczek (Nancy McKeon), the suit-wearing tomboyish transfer student who flouted rules and feminine styles. “She was not this traditional girl, and, if you can believe it, I was not either,” DuVall explained. “It made me feel better about myself.”
That confidence translated to her work. Her performance as Graham in But I’m a Cheerleader gave a generation of queer women someone to look up to: DuVall has been approached countless times by fans who tell her how the story makes them feel less alone. And now, if the response to Happiest Season is any indication, DuVall’s work has resonated with a new generation of queer viewers. It’s a cycle, DuVall explained, that gives her hope: “It will be less of a story soon [for a film to feature gay characters],” she predicted. “I definitely think we’re living at a time where the danger around a story that is not told through the lens that we are all used to is not a negative thing; it’s actually a positive.” Maybe that sandbox can be bigger than it used to be. Maybe being out publicly doesn’t have to be so destabilizing.
Whatever happens, DuVall will hold on to the warmth of those moments when someone tells her what her work has meant to them. That feeling of being understood—that’s the feeling her characters chase in Happiest Season, the feeling she found in writing and directing her own stories, and the feeling that “transcends movies and TV and the jobs,” she explained. “I mean, what an incredible gift [audiences] are giving to you, to allow you to be a part of their lives.”