Home for the Holidays: Fun Family Dysfunction

Nothing says Thanksgiving dinner like turkey, mashed potatoes, and family dysfunction.

Thanksgiving is one of my most favorite holidays. No, not because of the mass genocide that the white man brought to America. I mostly love this holiday for the food. I don’t know what it is about a good Thanksgiving meal that gives me the warm and full fuzzies. The food goes down especially nicely when you add in some good old fashioned family dysfunction.

Queue the movie Home for the Holidays. God, how I cherish this sleeper hit from the mid 90s. This film is such a good representation of that holiday tradition of family quarrels, uncomfortable moments, heart to hearts, and quality time with relatives you don’t see all too often, and probably for good reason.

I can’t think of too many movies that revolve around this specific holiday. Christmas movies seem to be the most bountiful, so Home for the Holidays has a leg up on the turkey day competition. The movie was directed by Jodie Foster (hello, Clarice), and its biggest roles were given to Anne Bancroft, Holly Hunter, and Robert Downey Jr.. I need to mention that the reason why I watched this movie in the first place many years ago was because it also stars Claire Danes in a tiny role. As a girl who was OBSESSED with her because of My So-Called Life, it was a no-brainer that I wanted to watch any movie she was in. But, I digress.

Hunter plays Claudia, a down and out artist who is going home for Thanksgiving. She has been recently fired from yet another job, and is dreading having to spend time with her neurotic mother, somewhat oblivious father, uptight sister, and her crazy aunt. After hearing a very desperate voicemail from Claudia, her baby brother, Tommy, played by Downey Jr., shows up very early on Thanksgiving day to save Claudia from drowning in a gravy-fueled nightmare. Things get very tense very quickly as the family begins to awkwardly and hilariously unravel around the dinner table.

Here’s the thing, every family has a specific dynamic. Yours does, mine does, and most of the time, it has some very interesting aspects. Claudia is the oldest of the three kids and is also the black sheep; she’s sort of a fuck up. She got pregnant very young, is no longer with the father, moves from job to job, and is deemed kind of unstable because of those factors. Her middle sister, Joanne, is uptight and resentful towards her siblings because they moved away and don’t need to deal with their aging parents. Tommy, the youngest, is a free spirited prankster who also happens to be gay, a fact that many of the family members are uncomfortable with. Throw in a helicopter mom, played by Bancroft, a crazy aunt, and a bumbling father in a family that loves each other, but also displays overt acts of passive aggressiveness. Many of the characters are probably representative of some of your own kin.

This film is not over-the-top funny, and it’s not terribly dramatic. In fact, many of the performances evoke a subtle sense of familiarity. Anyone that comes from a family with complex relations, unspoken wounds, old rivalries, and favorites, alongside acceptance of flaws and neurosis can relate to this movie. At one point, Claudia tells Joanne, “We don’t have to like each other. We’re family.” Which is true. At the end of the day, you get what you get, family wise.

Family is complicated, and sometimes ugly. Family can be annoying, and induce deep eye rolls. Family can be your biggest cheerleader, as well as your biggest hater. But, family can also produce your best friends. It can support you no matter how many times you mess up. It can be a group of people that seemingly have very little in common, but that, ultimately, want the best for each other. That’s why this movie is so special. It portrays an average family, no heroes, no true villains, trying to get through a holiday as best as they can without completely falling apart and/or killing each other.

So, when you’re sitting around this year, after stuffing your face, then getting into an argument with your relatives over female reproductive rights or the January 6th insurrection, think about this movie. Think about the fact that most average, American families have varying levels of dysfunction. Most families both look forward to, and dread, having to sit across from someone they have very little in common with, but with whom they are forever connected to. Think about what family is, what it means to you, and how to escape this holiday relatively unscathed.

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