When I first saw Jodie Foster’s Home for the Holidays in 1996, I was in my early teens and didn’t like it. It was too chaotic, too jarringly filled with conflicting emotions, too noisy. Now, twenty-one years later, I love the movie, and have a new way to describe it: it’s too real.
I’ve watched Home for the Holidays every Thanksgiving for many years now, and every time I revisit the film, I roar with laughter and am deeply touched by its relentlessly complicated depiction of middle age, going home, and familial love. I relate to it a lot, and I suspect that I’m not alone. In honor of its recent Blu-ray release, I’m here to celebrate what I feel are the ten most relatable elements in Home for the Holidays. Please share yours in the comments!
Warning – spoilers ahead!
- The Shocking Instability Of Middle Age
When we first meet Claudia Larson (Holly Hunter, as bliss-inducing as ever), her life seems pretty enviable. She’s passionately restoring a painting for a museum, her boss loves her work, she lives in Chicago, and she wears glamorous ‘90s bourgeois bohemian clothes. Moments after the main titles roll, however, her boss regretfully fires her. In response, they make out, and both immediately regret it. Of course, this all takes place on the day before Thanksgiving. Escalating the crisis, Claudia’s daughter (Claire Danes) fails to comfort her by announcing — as she drops her off at the airport — that she’s going to lose her virginity that weekend.
Middle age is weird like that; just when you think that things are coming together, they can fall apart. And they usually fall apart right before you’re getting on a plane to visit your family, when you have a bad cold.
- The Plane Ride
On the plane, Claudia gets stuck next to a chatty busybody who takes up a lot of space. She wants to engage endlessly about turkey stuffing and her moronic son, who sells thousand dollar suits in Akron. Also, she’s packed hard boiled eggs.
Almost the exact same thing happened to me the last time I flew to visit my family — including the hard boiled eggs. I enjoy it a lot more when it’s happening to Holly Hunter in a movie.
- The Newspaper Article That Claudia’s Mother Saves For Her
When Claudia’s parents drive her home from the airport, her mother Adele (Anne Bancroft, a national treasure) thrusts newspaper clippings in her face. Until I saw Home for the Holidays, I thought this tendency was unique to my dad, who always saves at least one newspaper article for me to read when I come home (sometimes, in urgent cases, he will call to read them to me on the phone).
Extra points go to Bancroft’s phenomenal reading and discussion of said article later in the film, but I won’t ruin it for you here. It’s worth buying the Blu-ray for that scene alone.
- Inter-family Farting
At home, Claudia’s dad (Charles Durning) calls out her mom’s fart. “He’s lying!” she says (her delivery is priceless). I will not confirm or deny that flatulence and discourse about it have been known to happen amongst various members of my family. I will just say that once, I was in an elevator at the mall with an adult family member and two random teenagers. The adult family member in question farted and told the teenagers that I did. This person knows who they are.
- The Film’s Acknowledgment That Dylan McDermott Is Too Beautiful To Be Trusted
Claudia’s brother Tommy (a manic, impossible, soulful, and wonderful Robert Downey Jr.) brings Leo Fish (Dylan McDermott) home to the family gathering. Claudia thinks that he’s left his husband, Jack, for this other man and she is having none of it because she adores his Jack (in 1995, this was a really awesome, progressive conflict-surrounding-homosexuality for siblings in a movie to have). Claudia doesn’t trust Leo because he’s too beautiful. When she tells this to Tommy, he responds, “He was born that way, it’s not his fault.” This movie was the first time I ever saw Dylan McDermott and he was dazzling. His charming performance makes Leo Fish one of the best romantic leads in any movie.
- The Cement Bond Between Brother And Sister — And Their Total Acceptance Of Each Other’s Failings
On the plane, Claudia calls and leaves a hilariously authentic, hysterical message to Tommy about the chaotic details of her recent crisis. All day, he repeatedly tells her that he hasn’t gotten the message, until all hell breaks loose at the family’s Thanksgiving dinner. Amidst hurled accusations, explosions of long simmering tensions, and a cascade of falling turkey guts, Claudia sits on Tommy’s lap and he reveals that he’s listened to the message. They start laughing about the madness of Claudia’s last 48 hours while the rest of the family looks on, confounded. This scene always makes me think of my own sister, who I can always count on to make life’s disasters more bearable by making them funny. Like Tommy and Claudia, my sister and I also have an alien language incomprehensible to everybody else and a bond of steel. I can’t think of another movie that has represented that brother-sister bond so well.
- Joanne’s Fury At Getting Messy
The always welcome Cynthia Stevenson plays Joanne, Tommy and Claudia’s sister, who has rebelled against her family’s lovable unruliness by becoming an uptight control freak. The movie has more compassion for her than Claudia and, particularly, Tommy, who pushes her buttons mercilessly. Their battle of the wills reaches an explosive peak when a turkey’s guts end up falling on her head. This, to me, is the most unbearable part of the movie. I hate getting messy and deeply, physically feel Joanne’s rage. You almost expect her to go telekinetic on everybody’s ass. It’s such a relief when she goes home and puts on clean exercise clothes. Her return home also leads to a sad, beautifully done scene where she and Claudia acknowledge the fact that their sisterhood isn’t what it’s “supposed to be,” and that maybe that’s okay.
- Aunty Glady’s Nostalgia For The Past
If the film’s entire cast weren’t so mind-bogglingly brilliant, Geraldine Chaplin would steal the show as the kooky spinster Aunt Gladys, who wears a necklace made of cereal and will only eat the sweet potatoes that she brought to the dinner (There is somebody in my life who also feels that his or her dish is always by far the best at the pot luck. Again, they know who they are). Come Thanksgiving, Glady finds herself lost in the past, remembering a Christmas Eve in the ’50s when Claudia’s dad kissed her. “Whenever I look at him, I know how lucky my sister must be,” says Gladys, “because he made all my dreams come true for her. I was a Latin teacher.” I get it. The holidays, and returning to those who have known us for our entire lives, have a way of making us think about the choices we’ve made, the way that the fickle finger of fate has touched us, and how things might have ended up differently. Later, Adele (Claudia’s mom and Glady’s sister) wisely points out that things end up the way they should, but that doesn’t mean they end up perfect.
- The Various Ways In Which Running Into (Non-Family) People From Your Past While Home For The Holidays Can Be Bad
Claudia encounters two people from her past at opposite ends of the “bad” spectrum. First, Adele tries to fix Claudia up with Russell, a sad sack handyman. Russell tells Claudia of the litany of tragedies that have befallen him and seems to have lost the spark of life. To make matters worse, he’s clearly a bit in love with her. What is Claudia supposed to say?
Later, while Claudia walks down the side of the road, abandoned and wearing her mother’s pink, puffy, and dated coat (long story), a glamorous former classmate, Ginny Johnson Drewer, pulls up in an expensive convertible with her hunky boyfriend, and rubs her success in Claudia’s face. You get the feeling that Ginny and her boyfriend are both nightmares, who will break up in, like, a week, and that Claudia probably knows it, but that’s the nature of run-ins like this when you’re home for the holidays. People can make you feel terrible about the status of your own life even as you judge them!
- If You’re Lucky — Even If Your Family Is Totally Insane — The Deep Love And Bonds That You Share With Them Are Worth It.
Claudia goes through it on her trip! Every stressful thing that can happen during the holidays happens to her. She and her family laugh and love each other, but are also confronted with existential despair, real inter-family hostility, and the aforementioned turkey guts. Still, as Claudia gets on the plane to go back to Chicago, she thinks about her family and the decades of love that they’ve shared. You can’t be that intimate with people without things getting a little messy, but she seems to realize that the messiness is the price you pay for knowing each other better than anybody else and loving each other anyway. Home for the Holidays has the perfect message for Thanksgiving, and I can never watch its last scenes without crying a little. I now know what I didn’t in 1995: that, as in life, the movie’s emotions, characters, and relationships are not easy. They’re better than that.