Home for the Holidays (review)

part of my Directed by Women series
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It’s All Relative

Family. If you’re like most people, that small word resonates with a slew of conflicting sentiments: devotion and frustration, comfort and agita — all those love/hate emotions. You can’t wait to get home when you’re on your way, sometimes, and you can’t wait to leave once you get there.

Beautifully written by W.D. Richter and directed with a sure hand by Jodie Foster (who appears as an actor in Contact, The Silence of the Lambs), Home for the Holidays wraps all those contradictory feelings up and serves them for Thanksgiving dinner. Perhaps the most realistic holiday movie I’ve ever seen, this oddly charming, poignant, and blackly funny film is a treasure not to be missed.

Claudia Larson (Holly Hunter: A Life Less Ordinary) is not having a great day. On the same day she is fired without warning from her job as a restorer of paintings, she has to face a pre-Thanksgiving plane trip to her childhood home — and she’s afraid of flying. Her teenage daughter, Kitt (Claire Danes: Les Misérables, The Rainmaker), staying behind to spend the holiday with a girlfriend, drops a bomb as she leaves Mom at the airport: She’s gonna have sex with her boyfriend, okay?

One perilous journey later, Claudia is faced with her parents: Adele (Anne Bancroft: G.I. Jane) and Henry (Charles Durning). Mom’s a bit manic and still tends to treat Claudia like a three-year-old (like barging in on Claudia in the bathroom) and Dad, newly retired, is driving his wife even crazier. Thankfully, her brother and confidante Tommy (Robert Downey Jr.: Bowfinger, U.S. Marshals) turns up unexpectedly, so Claudia is saved her from dealing with the ’rents on her own. That would have been too much, considering that she also has to spend the holiday with her uptight sister Joanne (Cynthia Stevenson), Joanne’s uptight husband Walter (Steve Guttenberg), their bratty kids, and dotty Aunt Gladys (Geraldine Chaplin).

The high drama of merely being a member of a family is what carries Home for the Holidays, not any sitcomish plot shenanigans. Thanksgiving day is about “torture,” Claudia and Tommy agree — each says, at one point, “I’m not gonna make it.” This is a story about family secrets revealed over the dinner table, about feeling like an alien within your own family, about adult kids suddenly realizing that their parents are getting old, and about the ordinary things that lifelong memories are made of. But it’s the tiny, almost painfully real details in Home for the Holidays that make this an unforgettable little film. The almost loving bickering of Claudia’s parents — grating on Claudia but obviously comfortable to Adele and Henry; how Claudia can’t stand being at home yet is upset to be out of the loop, as when she learns that Dad is on some new medication she hasn’t heard about; the awkward reunions between old school friends Claudia runs into at home — these are the things that make me feel like someone’s been peeking in on my own family, my own life.

The thoroughly winning cast makes Home for the Holidays feel comfortable and familiar, too. Holly Hunter (not usually a favorite of mine) and Robert Downey Jr. (whom I always find fascinating to watch) have a chemistry you don’t see often onscreen — that of close and loving siblings — that makes you wish they were your own relatives. Dylan McDermott as Tommy’s friend Leo proves that he has comic chops that haven’t been put to good use often enough. And David Strathairn (Simon Birch, L.A. Confidential) has a touching cameo as an old friend of Claudia’s, whom Tommy calls “the saddest sack in the universe.”

Stuck in airport traffic in her parents’ car, Claudia exchanges a sympathetic glance with a man in the car next to them, also obviously beginning a trying weekend with his parents. Both these adult kids share the same emotion — love tinged with resignation — that fills all of Home for the Holidays. It’s maybe one of the most genuine emotions of all: loving the people we love in spite of ourselves. And this is a wonderful tribute to it.

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