Weekend Watch: Home for the Holidays

Lucy Scholes

Lucy Scholes on a Thanksgiving movie that we can all relate to in one way or another

23 November 2018 13:16

While I’m not denying that Planes, Trains and Automobiles (John Hughes, 1987) is the very best Thanksgiving movie, I do have a soft spot for a lesser-known holiday tale: Jodie Foster’s second directorial outing, Home for the Holidays (1995). Whereas in Hughes’ comedy, businessman Neal Page (Steve Martin) is desperately trying to make it back to Chicago in time for Thanksgiving with his wife and kids, in Foster’s film, Claudia Larsen (Holly Hunter) – a thirty-something single mother who works as an art restorer – battles her way out of the Windy City in order to fly to Baltimore to spend Turkey Day with her parents.

‘I can see your roots, Claudia,’ tuts her mother, Adele (the brilliant Anne Bancroft, a cigarette perpetually between her lips), from the backseat of the car as Claudia’s father, Henry (Charles During), drives them home from the airport. Claudia, sat in the front seat, says nothing, just scoots a little further down into her huge borrowed coat (she lost her more elegant fitted number back at the airport in Chicago). One imagines her slowly counting to ten in her head. The car is stuck in traffic, and alongside them she sees a fellow sufferer – a grown man, in the backseat of what’s clearly his parents’ car – mouthing ‘help me’ through the window.

The family holiday film isn’t exactly uncommon – there’s a whole host of Christmas offerings – and amongst these there are plenty of dysfunctional families, either desperately putting a brave face on things or visibly cracking beneath the pressure. But Home for the Holidays stands out due to its vividly realistic portrayal of the regression that happens when now grown-up offspring return to the parental home. All of those supposedly long since passed dynamics suddenly furiously reassert themselves. Claudia’s no longer the mother of the fifteen-year-old she’s left home alone back in Chicago. If anything, her daughter Kitt – who’s played by Claire Danes, fresh off ’90s TV classic, My So Called Life (Winnie Holzman, 1994-95) – actually proves she’s the more responsible of the two. Daughterless, jobless (as of that morning), and without a partner, Claudia immediately falls back into the trappings of adolescence, especially in the form of the affirmation of old loyalties. Namely the close sibling bond between her and her beloved but infuriating brother Tommy (Robert Downey Jr., deep in his addiction years), who arrives unannounced.

So too, childish rivalries resurface. Claudia and Tommy’s sister Joanne (Cynthia Stevenson) and her family – her uptight husband Walter (Steve Guttenberg) and their children, Walter Jr. (Zack Duhame) and the supremely annoying Brittany (Emily Ann Lloyd) – are the butt of Claudia and Tommy’s mean teasing. Though any compassion one feels for Jo – a woman who tragically tells her sister that the only thing she enjoys in her life is the precious minutes she spends each day on the Stairmaster in her basement – quickly dissipates with her bigoted tirade against what she sees as Tommy’s selfishness at being out and proud back home in Boston, where he lives with his partner, Jack (Sam Slovik). ‘I have friends there,’ she whines, mortified that someone she knew saw Tommy and Jack kissing in public.

Admittedly, she’s not the only one in the family who has a problem with Tommy being gay. Adele and Henry (During and Bancroft are a match made in heaven here, by the way, completely believable as the long-suffering but still in love husband and wife) aren’t exactly supportive, though their way of dealing with it is to ignore rather than berate. Though credit where credit’s due, there’s also an unexpectedly tender moment when Henry finds himself speaking to Jack on the phone. Watching it now, the way that the film handles Tommy’s sexuality does sit a little uncomfortably, but it’s worth remembering that the eye behind the camera presumably had plenty of experience of her own to draw on her. Although Foster was in a relationship with a woman at this point, it would be another twelve years until she would publicly acknowledge the fact.

‘We don’t have to like each other,’ Claudia tells Joanne later that evening. ‘We’re family.’ This is after the slap-up lunch has been well and truly ruined by Joanne’s outburst; though if I’m being fair, I should mention that she was goaded, as well as drenched in turkey grease before she let rip – there’s no competition with Steve Martin and John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles (John Hughes, 1987), but Home for the Holidays has its own slapstick moments. But now tempers have calmed down. This message is as traditional as pumpkin pie – like ’em or not, your family is the only one you’ve got, so you might as well stop complaining – but I’m thankful for the fact that Home for the Holidays never becomes too sentimental. When Claudia boards the plane to return to Chicago, her sense of relief is palpable.

The light smattering of genuinely heartfelt moments is just enough to conjure up some holiday spirit. There’s ditzy Aunt Glady’s (Geraldine Chaplin) wine-inspired reminiscence of the day her sister Adele first brought Henry home to meet the family; turns out Glady’s held a candle for him herself all these years. And an encounter between Claudia and the furnace repairman (David Strathairn) – Adele knows he’s always had a soft spot for her daughter and she can’t help but try and set them up – turns from pathetic to poignant in the blink of an eye. Meanwhile, the main event is the blossoming romance between Claudia and Leo Fish (Dylan McDermott), the friend Tommy’s brought with him. It doesn’t really matter whether this is the beginning of their happily ever after (and if I had to put money on it, I’d say it isn’t); at this particular point in time the sparks are flying. As the series of sepia-toned vignettes that mark the end of the film show, it’s these moments of happiness that each of us remember – even Joanne! The full story, as we’ve just seen, isn’t so Kodak-friendly.