Thanksgiving is this week, a holiday that’s up to its oven-roasted neck in traditions: the gathering of the family around the dinner table; the infusion of carb-heavy foods that leads to an inevitable food coma; the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade followed by the parade of football teams across our television screens; and much more, depending upon your household. For me, this week has at least one sacrosanct tradition that happens regardless of where we may be breaking bread Thursday. That would be the annual multiple viewings of my favorite Thanksgiving movie, Home for the Holidays. It did not come by this title easily. No, no, this 1995 movie directed by Jodie Foster and boasting a star-studded cast (Steve Guttenberg, anyone?) has earned its place in my home’s bevy of Thanksgiving traditions thanks to its status as hitting nearly every cliché familiar to each person with a family on a major holiday like Thanksgiving.
- The personal problem that arises just before the holiday, which you then must either endure or ignore for the duration of your time with your family.
Claudia Larson (Holly Hunter) is the prodigal oldest child, an artist who showed promise early. She has left her hometown of Baltimore for Chicago, working on a project cleaning and restoring artwork for a museum in the area. The day she is to travel home for the holiday her boss unloads some unfortunate news on her. Then her teenage daughter Kitt (Claire Danes) does the same. Suddenly, Claudia is on an airplane home to visit her family with a boatload of vulnerability nipping at her heels.
- The joys of travelling when everyone else is wearing the same expression you are: dread?
Since her daughter decides to stay home in Chicago, Claudia navigates the crowded airports and packed airplanes alone, seeing the same expressions on strangers’ faces over and over. She hears their conversations, the inane and the crazy, all of it surely familiar to the viewers watching.
- The humiliating reappearance of elements of your past
Claudia’s return to Baltimore also brings the reappearance of people who knew her before and I’m not talking about just her parents. The homecoming queen (Amy Yasbeck) and the sadsack old high school classmate (David Strathairn) both make appearances while Claudia is home for the holiday. She hasn’t even been home for twenty-four hours before she deals with these blasts from the past. Both expose moments of vulnerability for the normally stoic Claudia.
- The off-kilter reality that is your family.
Meeting Claudia at the airport are her parents, a retired airplane mechanic (Charles Durning) and a housewife (Anne Bancroft). It’s clear they’re getting older, but, at the same time, Claudia catches glimpses of a rich life that she herself hasn’t seen in a while. Overnight, however, their peace is disturbed by the arrival of her brother, Tommy (Robert Downey, Jr.), and his friend Leo Fish (Dylan McDermott), neither of whom was expected, but, boy, is she glad Tommy is there. Thanksgiving Day, her aunt Gladdy (Geraldine Chaplin) and her sister Joanne (Cynthia Stevenson) and her family arrive. All of this togetherness makes Claudia realize something interesting about her family: that she doesn’t know as much as she thought she did about them. Her sister makes a statement that drives this point home for Claudia as her departure for her home in Chicago grows closer:
Claudia: You don’t know the first thing about me.
Joanne: Likewise, I’m sure. If I just met you on the street… if you gave me your phone number… I’d throw it away.
Claudia: Well, we don’t have to like each other, Jo. We’re family.
- The humiliating questions about your present – and your future.
“So, Claudia, how’s your fabulous life?” asks her brother-in-law (Steve Guttenberg) when the group sits down to Thanksgiving dinner. With all she’s been through so far that weekend – the news her boss unloads on her before she leaves; the visits from her past; and the presence of Leo Fish on her periphery – Claudia doesn’t welcome the questions from her family because she’s already asking them herself. The whole weekend becomes not just a visit with her family, but a total reexamination of her life, forced into a few short days. But it’s a question we can all relate to, that need to share your life with family you may not see but a few times a year in a manageable way that doesn’t expose whatever uncertainties you might be dealing with.
There you go, folks: Home for the Holidays, with its stellar cast and its encapsulation of the American experience of the Rockwellian holiday expectations contrasted with the gritty realities of family life, is THE perfect Thanksgiving movie. It’s catharsis incarnate: a chance to laugh at Claudia’s terrible holiday weekend while relating to her in a multitude of ways. I can’t wait to pop it in my DVD player this week as I go about preparing for my own Thanksgiving dinner this coming Thursday.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
What is your favorite Thanksgiving movie? What movies do you watch to help you get in the spirit of the holidays as well as prepare you for dealing with your family and friends?