A movie about how painful it can be to go home – and why you still should
This year, many families will be forced forego the traditional of a big family event for Thanksgiving. The current pandemic and the potential dangers of travel and large gatherings has made a family holiday season a deadly threat, and for good reason. Most Americans would do well to heed health experts and bureaucratic warnings, being content to have a modest celebration and connect with loved ones over Zoom and their phones and hope for better times next year. It’s hard, of course, but we (as several ads since the pandemic and lockdowns have stated) can stay apart together.
And for some, this will be a relief. No bickering, no nagging, no having to explain a weight loss or gain, no having to dance around potentially sensitive topics like employment, romantic prospects, or (god forbid in the year our lord 2020) POLITICS.
Sometimes visiting your immediate and extended family can be a real pain in the ass, and no movie understands this better than Jodie Foster’s burgeoning cult classic Home for the Holidays, written by WD Richter and released in the fall of 1995. Yes, they’re your family but JFC can they grind your gears sometimes.
The Larson family, of Baltimore, consists of parents Adele and Henry Larson (Anne Bancroft and Charles Durning) and three children: Claudia (Holly Hunter), Tommy (Robert Downey Jr.), and Joanne (Cynthia Stevenson).
Our protagonist and audience surrogate is Claudia, a divorced single mother who lives with her teenage daughter, Kit (Claire Danes), in Chicago. In the first scene, she is suddenly fired from her job as an art restorer at a museum – she responds by impulsively kissing her now ex-boss before leaving the premises in a daze. Kit drives her mother to the airport, having earned a seat at her boyfriend’s family table, and announces that she will also be losing her virginity to him over the weekend while her mother is away. Claudia, panicking, leaves brother Tommy a message on his machine begging him and his lover Jack (bland white 90s actor whom I can’t recall, it doesn’t matter) to come to the family celebration to take some heat away from her.
Adele and Henry pick Claudia up from the airport, where she is immediately bombarded by her mother’s smothering and her father’s consistent hectoring about the changing world. Later that night, in her childhood bedroom, prodigal brother (and, because the early-90s, also gay) Tommy surprises her by not only showing up but bringing a guest, Leo (Dylan McDermott), whom is in fact NOT a new beau but an intended romantic partner for her. The next day, Thanksgiving, is the big day and added to the mix is Adele’s sister, Aunt Glady (Geraldine Chaplin), a spinster former schoolteacher, and vindictive other sister Joanne with her family, buttoned up husband Walter (Steve Guttenberg) and two annoying children.
And that’s it. The stage is set and we just watch these larger than life personalities play off each other, squabbling over the turkey and stuffing cholesterol counts, arguing over who is more put-upon and ungrateful to differing degrees, and gradually revealing small, tiny bombshells that feel incredibly lived-in. The details of the plot and these revelations are not life-shattering in any way, in the manner of a Tennessee Williams play or a Douglas Sirk melodrama, but devastating in a family way – smaller scale, little secrets and recriminations that feel achingly real.
Foster, one of our most intelligent actors and therefore a natural director, rehearsed her actors for two weeks on location like a play, encouraging them to improvise dialogue and scenes when they felt things weren’t truthful and it shows. The petty fights between even the two most aligned siblings, Claudia and Tommy, have the energy of two kids who used to wrestle and give each other nuggies, but also formed an alliance against Joanne, who seems like she has always been a spoilsport. When dealing with Aunt Glady, whose eccentricities seem to be sliding into dementia, Bancroft’s Adele is mixed with sisterly annoyance and genuine fears of not only her sister getting old, but her and her husband’s advancing age and declining health. Durning’s Henry, stubborn head of household, can’t help but pick on son-in-law Walter over every little thing and Guttenberg in turn seems exceptionally desperate for approval.
Little scenes blow up into family wide disagreements, just like they would in real life Thanksgivings. In the film’s center, the dinner istelf, Tommy accidentally (or was it on purpose) ruins Joanne’s dress by pushing it into her lap while trying to carve it. In her humiliation, she mockingly reveals that she knows that Tommy and his boyfriend Jack got married/civil unioned in Boston months ago and asks if he wore a dress or took his husband’s last name. Tommy, representing the unspoken queer subtext of both gays everywhere and the director, has been bruised by life since he realized he was different and he has created a chosen life for himself in Boston – this wedding is something of a solidifying of his life apart from his parents.
The parents react accordingly, but with a relatable grace: mother hides in a hidden food pantry behind a false wall in the kitchen to smoke a cigarette and commiserate over being excluded form her son’s wedding; the father, opportunistically intercepts a phone call from his new son-in-law and quite sweetly, in a quiet way, wishes him well before handing the phone to his son.
The film is full of moments where the characters reveal surprising depth and humanity in the face of caricature. Claudia is forced to put on a brave face when a former classmate ambushes her on the way out from the supermarket, riding shotgun in a sleek sports car with a mink coat and gloating over Claudia’s divorce and misfortunes. Adele, puttering around the house after making up Claudia’s bed, is still micromanaging while she undresses in front of her daughter, stopping when she’s in her slip and bra to look at herself in the mirror and despair at how old she’s getting. Kit calls to remind Claudia of the time they went snorkeling, encouraging her to deal with her family’s squabbles like the fish – “Just Float.” Walter and Joanne, seeing Tommy’s car outside the house before arriving, brace themselves for the onslaught they are about to experience.
There are lines that soar, and then cut like a knife:
Henry, after having to break up some fisticuffs on his lawn with a hose, spots his neighbors staring. “Go back all your own Goddamn holidays!” He barks accusingly.
Being upbraided for keeping his wedding a secret, Downey’s Tommy addresses his mother directly: “Enough! You’re a pain in my ass, you have bad hair, but…I like you a lot.”
Bancroft steels herself, winces a little, and says “Even as a little boy, you didn’t want us too close.”
Henry, in a private moment, remembers how he took the family to his job at the airport and his realization that Claudia was the only one unafraid of the planes taking off: “Best moment of my life, 1969, two minutes tops.”
Adele, seeing her daughter off, pleads “There’s never enough time, is there? That’s what I hate about airplanes – thinking I’m never gonna see my kids again.”
And Aunt Glady, giggling off wine at the dinner table, remembers when both she and Adele were vying for Henry’s affections and sharing a kiss with him as they slow danced next to the Christmas tree. Her small speech is a tiny music box of a lonely life:
“For one special moment, my little life was as big as I could ever want it to be. To have someone so close to you, they’re inside of you, to hold you whenever you’re feeling small and scared and just disappointed in yourself. And whenever I look at your father, I know how lucky my sister must be – because he made all my dreams come true for her. I was a Latin teacher.”
Chaplin’s delivery is heartbreaking, and is par for the course as Hunter, Downey, Bancroft, Durning, and Stevenson all give some of the most inspired and lived-in performances to ever coexist. These people fit as a dysfunctional family, they play off each other in unexpected ways, and they feel like real people in ways more forced holiday movies don’t (The Family Stone, albeit a good movie, feels like a grab bag of both actors and their differing acting styles/abilities). The only character who falls flat is the 90’s white man character, played ably by Dylan McDermott but stifled by being generically written – and the fact that he has to play scenes against Hunter and Downey just riffing off each other is to his detriment. This was in the middle of Downey’s drug problems, but watching him play off veterans like Bancroft and Durning, as well as underused 90’s icon Stevenson, you understand why we went through the efforts to get him sober – he’s electric, and he keeps Hunter on her toes.
The most haunting scene, directly after Joanne’s outburst, finds Claudia and Tommy alone in the kitchen, with two plates of food and a small jug of cheap wine. They converge on a the small cafe table in the center, reaching over each other into drawers and cabinets with hand and foot that feel like they grew up in this house (kudos to the physical work by both actors). After a few bites, they look at each other and immediately embrace in a deep, long hug. Dealing with these mini-battles with either Joanne or their parents is hard work, and they share the burden together. It’s a quiet scene, but it speaks so much to the relatability of the film.
The scenes of bickering and disagreement wouldn’t be out of place in any holiday gathering I’ve known of, mainly because they deal in universal themes, but also because they are sharply accurate. Little grievances can explode around a kitchen table, seeming almost like Greek drama to those involved, but small and petty to outsiders.
In the film’s most bruising scene, Claudia goes over to Joanne’s house bearing leftovers and Tupperware to mend fences. Walter greets her and Leo at the door with a warning: “She got so upset that she’s working out.”
In the unfinished basement, Joanne is mindless and aggressively climbing the Stairmaster while waiting for her ruined dress to cycle through the laundry. In a grim exchange, she refuses Claudia’s olive branch and angrily accuses her and Tommy of running away from their responsibilities and leaving her to deal with their parents. Joanna is an angry, flinty woman who resents the way she perceives her siblings are favored and treated over her. She believes it’s a selfless thing she does, living in town and helping her parents and keeping her own house, but asking for recognition of a selfless act is in itself a selfish one. Claudia then asks her what would happen to their parents if they weren’t handled with kid gloves, reminding Joanne that she has her own life and family to look after. Joanne, hanging her dress to drip dry, snaps “If I just met you on the street, if you gave me your number? I’d throw it away.”
This is a conversation ender, and Claudia replies “Well, Joanne, we don’t have to like each other – we’re family.” She leaves, and we see Joanne continue to climb her steps as tears well in her eyes to the point where she has to stop and breathe. It looks as if she will burst into tears, or make some sort of epiphany and resolve the conflict – and in a lesser movie she would. But no: she regroups and begins to work out again, shrugging off her moment of reflection and hubris and continuing to sublimate her frustrations and fears – all to keep putting on a face and keeping up appearances for people she feels don’t appreciate it. And so the cycle continues.
If I can editorialize for a second, I will say this is not a movie for everyone. There are members of my own family who enjoy it and some who don’t, probably because it hits a little close to home. But there is something special about this movie. It’s not flashily directed by any means – if anything here, Foster is almost imperceptibly aping the then-current warm colored, early 90’s lens pioneered by Nora Ephron romantic comedies, complete with some golden oldies Nat King Cole needle drops that evoke Sleepless in Seattle. And the script seems to have benefitted from the actors’ contributions, given that scribe Richter was formally more known for adapting Invasion of the Body Snatchers. But something in this movie has the ring of truth – I can’t quite put my finger on it, since there are many factors I enjoy. What springs to mind is the lost art of tone.
In order for a black comedy-drama to survive, it better balance tone, and no scene stands better as a thesis statement for the movie than when Adele calls a local handyman to fix the water heater on Thanksgiving. The handyman, Russell (a shockingly young and hot David Strathairn), is a former flame / classmate of Claudia’s (and that its never quite specified is smart). Adele maneuvers her daughter into the boiler area to serve him some eggnog and flirt a little, maybe make a connection. But Russell cannot help but spill how awful his life is: he’s working the holiday because other workers are with their families, and his parents were killed in a DUI the previous year, and the one serious girlfriend he ever had married his best friend. The scene would be hilarious, a laugh riot, if it weren’t for the constant, wounded dog look on Strathairn’s face and the way his voice seems on the verge of breaking after each ignominy. That is the tone the film keeps throughout – laughs that catch in your throat, because of the genuine warmth and humanity behind them.
One thing this film (and by that, also the screenplay and direction) understand is that life is short. It’s hard to hear, but mortality and it’s friend finality are right around the corner sometimes and you really never know how long you have in this life, in this place, with these people. A life doesn’t need to be distilled into moments, but when we look back and remember them, it’s moments that we vividly see in our mind and cherish forever. You can look back and say “I was young”, “I was foolish”, or “I was happy.” The film ends with a montage, or better tapestry, of the happiest moments of our characters lives – some of which feature the others and some of which don’t. Adele and Henry on at a bowling alley on a date. Tommy and his new husband at a clambake. Joanne, Walter, and the kids having a water gun fight. Claudia and Kit snorkeling with exotic fish. Aunt Glady stealing a kiss from Henry in front of the Christmas tree. And, in the end, Leo and Claudia resting against each other on the plane to Chicago.
These are moments – fleeting, intangible, but part of who we were, are, and will be for the rest of our lives. They are things to be remembered, forgotten, held up or buried, for us to take with wherever we go. And if I sound like Emily at the end of Our Town, saying goodbye to hot coffee, new dresses, and springtime, then good!
Because that’s a great fucking play. And if you can’t or won’t or shouldn’t go home for the holidays this year, you should watch this movie.
Then call your mother.
Home for the Holidays is available on STARZ and Amazon Prime Video.