When thinking about Thanksgiving movies, the one that always comes to most people’s minds is Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. I love that movie, but there’s one that I have grown to love just a little bit more: Home for the Holidays from 1995. Where Planes, Trains, and Automobiles explores the journey home, whereas Home for the Holidays explores what happens when you actually get home.
Directed by Jodie Foster (yes, that Jodie Foster), the film features a stellar cast: Holly Hunter, Robert Downey, Jr., Claire Danes, Anne Bancroft, Charles Durning, Dylan McDermott, Steve Guttenberg, Cynthia Stevenson, and Geraldine Chaplin. Claudia (Holly Hunter) is about to head home for Thanksgiving when she is fired from her job. Her daughter Kitt (Claire Danes) drives her to the airport. She isn’t joining in the holiday celebration with her family because she is spending it with her boyfriend’s family. As Claudia becomes tense because not only is she nervous about Thanksgiving, she also hates flying, Kitt reminds her of the time they went snorkeling with the angelfish and tells her, “Just float.” On the plane, Claudia calls her brother, Tommy (Robert Downey, Jr.), and asks him to come because she doesn’t want to face her family without him.
Claudia is the first to arrive at her parents’ house. Adele (Anne Bancroft) and Henry (Charles Durning) are preparing for the holiday and picking at each other as they do it. Bancroft and Durning have great chemistry as the parents of three distinctly different children. Claudia lives in Chicago, and Tommy lives in Boston. Joanne (Cynthia Stevenson) married Walter (Steve Guttenberg) and stayed behind in the same town as her parents. Before the big day, Claudia gets to observe her parents dancing at the end of the day, even though Adele protests a bit. When she finally gives in, Claudia sees a glimpse of her parents when they were young.
Tommy, along with his friend and employee Leo Fish (Dylan McDermott), arrives after everyone is in bed. Tommy is mischievous, and he wakes the house up when he takes a picture of Claudia sleeping, prompting her to scream and tackle him. Through conversation, we learn that Tommy is gay and has someone named Jack that he left at home. Claudia assumes that Leo is dating Tommy. Tommy spins his mom around the kitchen, charming her and making Claudia feel at ease.
Before Thanksgiving dinner the next day, Claudia, Tommy, and Leo go to get Aunt Glady (Geraldine Chaplin). Glady is a bit eccentric, living alone in a house full of plants. She is the perfect depiction of a sweet, weird aunt we’ve all met.
When Joanne and Walter and their kids arrive at the house, Joanne and Walter are dismayed because they didn’t know Tommy was going to be there. Though Claudia and Tommy are close, it’s clear that they don’t get along with Joanne. Joanne has even brought her family an entire meal that she cooked so that they don’t have to eat any food at the house. Tommy exacerbates the situation by jumping on their car and roaring like a dinosaur.
At dinner, everyone is civil, even though they’re trading thinly-veiled barbs at one another. Joanne and Walter, the perfect representation of conservative family members, bring up how Claudia and Tommy are not like them. Everything comes to a head when a mishap leaves Joanne covered in turkey grease. She calls Tommy a freak and lets slip that she knows that he and Jack got married. She insults everyone when they try to help her, and she loses control when she can’t control the situation.
Upset that she wasn’t aware of her son’s marriage, Adele retreats to the pantry. Claudia follows to make sure she’s okay, and they have a lovely conversation about how awful the holidays with family can be. Adele says they should be thankful they don’t have to go through this again until next year, except that Christmas comes right in the middle. Claudia also gets to talk to Kitt, finding out that she’s not having as great a time as she thought she would at her boyfriend’s house, but glad that she’s okay.
Later in the night, after Joanne and her family leave, the rest of the family decompresses. Claudia and Leo have been flirting, so Tommy suggests that they drive Joanne’s leftovers to her house and take Aunt Glady home. She and Joanne fight because Joanne thinks that Claudia thinks she’s better than her because she moved away. Joanne feels that she has to be responsible for their parents, and they decide that they don’t have to like each other to be family. My favorite part of this scene is when Claudia talks about looking at her family and sometimes wondering who these people are, knowing who they used to be but not really recognizing them now. That moment captures the holidays with family, especially as an adult visiting family. You have memories of what everyone was like when you were a kid, but you see things differently through adult eyes.
Before Claudia heads home, she watches some old home movies with her dad, and he essentially says something similar, wondering if he could have been more than he is. But then he shares with her a moment from her childhood that showed him that she is fearless. As the movie ends, we see a montage of the family members in their respective homes: Tommy and Jack with their friend family (what Jack referred to in a phone conversation as their “real family”), Joanne and Walter having a Nerf blaster fight and laughing, young Adele and Henry dancing and bowling, young Glady and Henry sharing a kiss (a moment that Glady drunkenly revealed at dinner that she cherished), and Claudia and Kitt snorkeling with the angelfish. It’s a beautiful testament to the comfort you feel with your family that you make as an adult. It’s not that you can’t be yourself with your blood family, but there’s a version of you that exists with the people you love and feel the most comfortable with that can’t ever exist with others, even family. And this film explores with humor the dynamic of people who are related but can’t relate to one another.
If you’re looking for a movie that will make you cry one moment and laugh the next, especially if you’ve experienced an awkward family Thanksgiving, I cannot recommend a better choice than Home for the Holidays.