As of Wednesday morning — the morning before Thanksgiving — I had yet to visit the market. For those of you unfamiliar with this family- and food-oriented American holiday, let me explain that the shopping for food alongside other, crazed shoppers is only one part of the anxiety. Thanksgiving stresses people out because it brings families together.

All our baggage of years gone by. All the ways we’ve disappointed each other — and let’s be frank, the ways we sometimes don’t even like each other — or perhaps just the way we think our families are disappointed in us, which is the same thing. The fact that Home for the Holidays manages to package all that up into a warm film that gets better on re-viewing is a small miracle … and let me say that I’ve seen this movie at least ten times, I love it so much.

This wasn’t Jodie Foster’s first directing job, but it was her last for more than 15 years (until she made last year’s The Beaver, a film I still haven’t seen) — perhaps because it received mixed reviews. I remain baffled by the large numbers of critics who haven’t rediscovered its virtues, for it’s truly one of those overlooked gems.

Start with the cast. Holly Hunter is our protagonist, Claudia, a down-on-her-luck fine art restorer and single mother who has flown home to Baltimore to see her family for Thanksgiving. Everything is going wrong — from the fact that she’s getting a cold to having just lost her job to the disturbing fact that her teenage daughter (Claire Danes), who’s staying in Chicago for the holiday, has pronounced that she’s going to have sex with her boyfriend while mom’s away. Claudia makes a piteous call to her young brother, Tommy (Robert Downey, Jr.) begging him to come home too, and arrives in Baltimore to find that she has lost her winter coat somewhere along the way. No worries, because like clockwork, her mother (Anne Bancroft) has brought an extra, one of those awful, oversized, pink Michelin Man numbers that only moms seem to own.

You might think, at first, that Home for the Holidays might simply be about a bedraggled, 30-something woman surviving a holiday with her wacky family. Not that there’s anything wrong with the dysfunctional family narrative; it’s one of my favorites. But Foster and screenwriter W. D. Richter have no interest in writing simple screwball. Every single bit of this movie starts to feel real.

Take a small sequence of scenes at the airport. Claudia walks past the bank of public phones and overhears each one of the harried travelers having exasperated conversations with family members. When she gets into the car only to sit in a traffic jam with her chain-smoking, rambling mother, Claudia glances over at the next car to see a similarly middle-aged man looking desperately at her while listening to his parents in the front seat:

Claudia gives him a look over the top of her enormous coat to convey the identical emotion:

And then her mother leans over from the back seat and says, “I can see your roots, Claudia.”

Claudia is saved by the surprise appearance of brother Tommy in the middle of the night along with a handsome friend named Leo Fish (Dylan McDermott), adding depth to the story. Who is Leo, and why hasn’t Tommy’s longtime boyfriend come? Deeply unserious and an inveterate practical joker, Tommy offers no answers.

Maybe this sounds like a series of easy stereotypes, from wacky parents to gay brother. But the story keeps changing up, subverting your expectations. For example, when her mother phones a still-single acquaintance from high school, Russell (David Strathairn in a brilliant bit part) to “take a look at the boiler,” the ensuing conversation starts out awkward and becomes bittersweet:

Russell: I’m just lettin’ the guys have the day off, you know, so they can visit their families, since I’m all alone this year. 
Tommy, whispering to Leo as they watch from the next room: This is the saddest sack in the universe. 
Russell: Yeah, I don’t have anybody anymore, my brother and sister got canned and they left town, and then my parents went and died on me. 
Claudia, softening to Russell’s situation: I’m so sorry. I had no idea. 
Russell: Yeah, well, you know — it was a car wreck, last summer, drunk driver, cut right across the, uh, what was it, you know — meridian, and, pow! pow! Head on. So, y’know, I don’t have anybody anymore, nowhere to go today, no family or nothin’ …

Eventually he pauses and says, “You still look so beautiful, Claudia.” It’s a wonderful little scene, as she’s both flattered and ashamed of her behavior toward him and says, almost flirtatiously, “Oh, god, I do not.”

“Maybe next year will be better for you,” she offers at the end. “Yeah,” he says with affected lightness. “Or worse.” Finally he says, “You have a nice life, Claudia.”

That’s the way of this movie: it doesn’t let you laugh at human foolishness without poking you and pointing out the ways you’re implicated in it.

And so it continues through the arrival of sister Joanne (Cynthia Stevenson) and her self-described “normal” family, allowing the director to open up the complicated relationships amongst the siblings. These scenes are played as much for laughs as for the genuinely toxic moments amongst people who don’t like each other. “We don’t have to like each other, Jo,” Claudia tells her. “We’re family.”

But perhaps the one thing that always gets me about this film is its quiet little theme about the disconnect between memories and commemoration. Each of the characters have special moments, treasured memories that were never captured in photographs — tiny little moments that crystallized something perfect. Some regret not taking those photos, but for others the memory is all the sweeter that it is theirs alone.

And then, by the very end, as many of the harsh edges have gotten chipped and the characters have voiced things that needed to be said, the film shows us a few of those memories: a father watching his little girl stare fearlessly up at a plane taking off; a mother and daughter snorkeling with fish; a gay marriage on a beach in Massachusetts, surrounded only by friends.

Those layers upon layers of memories, with piles of Thanksgiving flavors and family fights on top … isn’t that what the holidays are all about? Take care and enjoy your weekend, friends.

Advertisements