Philemon Chambers as Nick and Michael Urie as Peter in "Single All The Way"
Washington CNN  — 

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The excitement for Netflix’s first gay holiday-themed romantic comedy has focused largely on its radical joy.

“Single All the Way” is, in crucial ways, a queer fantasy, one in which gay men feel empowered to explore and act on their desires. Their lives aren’t marked by homophobia or missed opportunity.

As the movie charts Peter’s (Michael Urie) romantic life, it bracingly portrays a tale of gay love that features not misery but rather things such as a charming dance sequence set to Britney Spears’ yuletide bop “My Only Wish (This Year).”

But other things jumped out at me on my second viewing. The story is blissfully hermetic, its characters sipping peppermint lattes in a winter wonderland devoid of anti-gay bigotry. Yet there are occasional reminders of the social challenges – navigating the unease of the closet, wrestling with the isolation of small locales – that have long hovered over queer people. These different layers, together, make “Single All the Way” an emotionally rich film.

The plot goes like this. Peter, an overworked social media professional in Los Angeles, is determined to elude his family’s judgment about his singlehood. How does he intend to do that? By getting his best friend to pretend to be his boyfriend. Nick (Philemon Chambers), a children’s author, begrudgingly agrees to the scheme, and the two fly to snowy Bridgewater, New Hampshire, to spend the holidays with Peter’s family.

Then, a twist. Peter’s mom, Carole (Kathy Najimy), arranges for her son to go on a blind date with James (Luke Macfarlane), a so-hot-he’s-hurting-your-feelings trainer at her gym. The rest of the enchanting film explores the usual rom-com concerns, as viewers wonder: Will Peter end up with James? Or discover that his feelings for Nick aren’t platonic?

Peter with Aunt Sandy, played by Jennifer Coolidge

That plot is refreshing. When movies, including rom-coms, have queer characters, they tend to focus on the pain that can come with that identity. There’s a place for these films, many of which give necessary dimension to the anguish of navigating a homophobic society. Still, it’s nice to have a love story about gay people (one of whom is Black) that isn’t loaded with suffering.

By the time the camera even rolls, Peter is already out to his parents and siblings, who just want him to fall in love with the man of his dreams. (A well-meaning heterosexual ally, Carole is reading a book about “LGBTTs,” as she mistakenly and hilariously puts it, so that she can support her son.) Absent is a plotline that plumbs the anxieties of the closet.

“I’m excited to bring this funny, touching and – unusual for a holiday movie – gay romantic comedy to life because its message of love and family is universal,” Michael Mayer, the director, has said of the film’s frothy atmosphere. “It’s also really gratifying to tell a story that happens AFTER coming out!”

The complexity of closeted lives

Yet as heartwarming as “Single All the Way” is, the movie is salted with meaningful reminders of the disquieting world that Peter and Nick have left behind.

Take a breakup that arrives early in the film. Nick, who subsidizes his burgeoning writing career with work as a handyman for TaskRabbit, is installing Christmas lights at a client’s house when he discovers that said client, a woman, is married – to Peter’s boyfriend, Tim.

“You’re a liar and a cheater!” Peter explodes after learning about Tim’s trickery. “You’ve been lying to me for almost four months and to your wife for however many years and to yourself for – no, you know what? I’m not gonna judge whatever journey you’re on. It’s just not what I’m looking for, and I hope that you never do it to anybody else ever again.”

The exchange lasts for all of 15 seconds. But it burrowed into my brain. I’m not gonna judge whatever journey you’re on: Without excusing Tim’s behavior toward his wife or himself, Peter nods to the fact that, while he feels encouraged to be his full, unfettered self – a plant gay whose job includes gathering sexy Santas for a photo shoot – other gay men don’t. The scene is a terse yet touching acknowledgment of the closeted lives that many gay men lead in response to a world that’s stigmatized them into silence.

A similarly affecting scene comes a little later in the movie. Peter and James are on their first date when the former asks the latter, “Why are you living in this town?” It might seem like a throwaway question, something that anyone would ask to make casual conversation. But I suspect that the question has a distinct resonance for queer viewers.

Peter isn’t asking, “Oh, what brings you here?” Really, he wants to know, “How is it possible for you to live here” – in an isolated town that doesn’t have, to use Nick’s words, “a huge buffet of single gay men”? Peter’s articulating something that queer people have been parsing for decades: the allure of urban environments, which tend to offer queer people the sort of pleasure (and safety) that’s hard to find in small locales.

Even James admits to this reality when he says to Peter that the gay dating app radius in Bridgewater is “kind of a joke.”

The power of dueling meanings

I’m not saying that the aforementioned moments rob “Single All the Way” of its warmth. They roam on the story’s periphery, and can be easy to miss. But on noticing them, I found that they only heighten the film’s emotional sophistication, allowing “Single All the Way” to stand out among a slew of holiday movies and specials centering LGBTQ experiences.

Maybe no other part of “Single All the Way” better illustrates the film’s ability to work in multiple registers than a darkly comic scene where Aunt Sandy (played brilliantly by Jennifer Coolidge) agrees to let Peter and Nick help her with the Christmas pageant she’s directing.

“It’s not because the gays know theater. It’s because the gays just know how to do stuff,” Aunt Sandy says, with the authority of a diva. Then, presumably reflecting on history, she adds, “I mean, they’re survivors.”