December 19, 2011

Home For the Holidays

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Before you can even stop to digest your Thanksgiving turkey, America moves on to Christmas. Indeed, in an uncanny symbolism, right after the Thanksgiving Day Parade (and dog show) NBC now broadcasts Miracle on 34th Street, the consummate Christmas film complete with an ending as sweet as a sprinkled sugar cookie. This year, though, I dare Cornellians to try and resist this slide into Christmas by taking a moment to enjoy a little Thanksgiving film from 1995 called Home for the Holidays (available through Borrow Direct).

For main character Claudia Larson (Holly Hunter), returning home is never easy. However, this year it is even harder. Right before her trip, single-mother Claudia is unceremoniously fired from her job. She heads to home to eat Thanksgiving dinner with her parents in Baltimore dejected and alone, her teenage daughter (Claire Danes) having decided to spend the holiday with her boyfriend’s family. Through Claudia’s trip home, the film shows us the inherent absurdity of domestic family life and of the holidays, which force us to reinsert ourselves back into it. It shows us how, ironically, returning back home can seem incredibly, well, foreign.

After a long and uncomfortable flight Claudia finally lands in Baltimore – depicted here as a lower middle class purgatory – greeted at the gate by her grinning parents, who can’t even wait until the car ride back to the house to begin nitpicking … The movie continues in this vein, documenting all of the frustrations and difficulties of returning reluctantly to a home you thought you left behind long ago.

I use the word “documenting” for a reason. The movie takes the form of a series of vignettes, each depicting a different part of the holiday: the arrival, the meal, the relatives etc. It does not profess to be completely coherent, but rather, to authentically capture snippets from a few days in the life of Claudia and her family. Everything, from the underwritten dialogue, to the graininess of the shots evokes a documentary feel. In fact, the style is reminiscent of low-quality home movies shot on a cheap video camera or a shaky super 8. Director Jodie Foster explicitly makes this connection when she intersperses footage from home movies of the Larson family into the final scenes of the film.

The effect is to make us feel as though we are truly part of the family. We become witnesses to all of the minutiae of the Larson family drama, which here, unlike in big blockbusters (but rather like in reality) manifests itself in a series of small incidents. The scenes are poignant and relatable — distressing in an all too banal and familiar way.

And yet, the movie surprises you with little moments of sweetness. Amid all of the drama (some of it petty, some of it quite heavy), Claudia manages to connect, even if only very briefly, with her mother and father. Her favorite sibling, brother Tommy (Robert Downey Jr.) also makes an appearance, and redeems the holiday somewhat with his effervescence and quirky sense of humor.

More important than the sweet moments, though, are the funny ones. Home for the Holidays is funny. Hilarious, even. Ultimately, it is a movie I would characterize as a dark comedy much sooner than I would a melodrama.

Needless to say, such a movie does not leave you with the same happy glow that a movie like Miracle on 34th Street does. In fact, diverging from the majority of so-called “holiday” movies, this one has an ending that is unresolved and ambiguous. But that’s not to suggest that it leaves you dejected.

As with truly excellent movies, Home for the Holidays manages to be many things. It is realistic without being dull. Relatable without being clichéd. Touching without being sappy. It combines multiple plot lines, but doesn’t allow any to take precedence over another.

In short, Foster manages to hit the nail on the head and perfectly captures the complexities and nuances of familial interaction. It is an honest depiction of what holidays are really like — a time to engage with our close relatives— people we will always love, but often do not like or understand.

Original Author: Hannah Stamler