Were this any other time outside of 2020, “Home for the Holidays” would be an endearing review of family holiday comedy dramas. One that sparks nostalgia for dysfunctional gathers, hitting all the beats of a small town family reunion and the shenanigans that ensue. Unfortunately, 2020 has rendered these timeless events as nothing more than distant memories, and while Thanksgiving still very much exists, reviewing a holiday film on the eve of the holiday it portrays doesn’t quite hold the same relevance. Despite that, “Home for the Holidays” takes the most basic premise of its subsequent genre and manages to create a Thanksgiving classic (at least for me growing up) without bogging itself down with Hallmark movie cliches.
“Home for the Holidays” follows Claudia Larson, a talented artist and single mother living in Chicago who loses her job due to budget cuts. After her daughter decides to spend Thanksgiving with her boyfriend’s family, Claudia returns home to spend the holidays with her eccentric family.
To be fair, this is probably the first review I’ve written where I’ve actually felt the need to pad the plot to fill a paragraph. I decided not to because in truth, “Home for the Holidays” really is THAT simple. Yes, there are numerous subplots and family collisions that happen all throughout, but at its core, nothing really happens. I don’t say that be disparaging, either (I really need to stop watching “Ally McBeal“).
It’s good BECAUSE nothing really happens. The film opts to strip away the slapstick and impossibly relatable antics of holiday genre films and leave viewers with a simple story of a fractured family getting together because the holiday says they have to. There’s is no need for fluff, as the drama and collisions unfold as they need to, reminding us of actual family gatherings instead of fantasy ones.
Directed by Jodie Foster, her second feature film in the director’s chair, Foster manages to take a short story (of which the screenplay is adapted from) and capture a moment in time in a day in the life of these characters. She does so without adding a ton of bells and whistles, too. Nothing feels too overblown, no subplot lingers on too long even if it doesn’t get resolved, and surprisingly, “Home for the Holidays” never feels stretched beyond its incredibly simple story. While many critics hold this against the film, I find it to be one of its strengths. Sometimes, a movie needs to be nothing more than a quick glimpse into a life that resembles our own. It does this very well, and Foster deserves credit for showing restraint and purpose in her second time out.
Though clearly a sucker for simplicity, “Home for the Holidays” wouldn’t work nearly as well without its tremendous cast. Holly Hunter (Claudia) and Robert Downey Jr. (Tommy, her gay younger brother) are firing on all cylinders, bringing sympathy and complexity to characters we barely know and never really know outside of this one, singular family get together. It’s a lot of leg work particularly for Downey, who’s entire character arc in regards to his sexuality happens mainly off screen through other family members perceptions of it and coping mechanisms with it.
“Home for the Holidays” is surprisingly careful and honest with this subject matter considering the time, particularly with Tommy’s interactions with his father Henry (Charles Durning). Durning displays a father who isn’t quite sure whether he accepts his son’s lifestyle choices, but still very much loves him and recognizes his happiness. Furthermore, the fact that we get all of these complex and conflicting emotions in a moment in which Henry speaks to Tommy’s husband over the phone for 20 seconds tops is truly a testament to how good the performers are here.
With simplicity, direction, and superb performances mixed together, “Home for the Holidays” achieves exactly what it sets out to do. A mildly dysfunctional and eccentric family get brought together for Thanksgiving, things happen, and everyone leaves. The film mirrors reality almost to a fault, leaving very little resolution among them, with even fewer characters actually having an arc besides maybe Claudia. Sure, you’d be inclined to want more from sisters Claudia and Joanne (Cynthia Stevenson) and how their relationship has clearly been fractured irreparably for years. It would be nice to get a bit more understanding as to why Aunt Glady (a hilariously over the top performance by Geraldine Chaplin) is the way she is and why she all of a sudden recounts her unyielding love for Henry a the dinner table.
But much like anyone’s first time meeting a new family, many of us are seldom privy to the ins and outs of family conflicts. Many explosive Thanksgiving dinners are laden with a lot of “I’ll explain more later on the way home” as we sit back and watch whatever fireworks happen. In the end, despite all that occurs during the combustion, resolved or not, and like it or not (as Claudia tells Joanne), everyone is still family. And that’s what “Home for the Holidays” is truly about. It doesn’t need a lot to get there, and doesn’t need to overstuff the story like the turkey they’re eating.
Families are complicated, and getting together a few times a year is often a recipe for disaster. But in truth, houses don’t always burn down, the food isn’t destroyed by animals, exes don’t always show up unannounced and wreak havoc over stuffing. Sometimes the shenanigans are subtle, and nothing more than a lengthy confession from your cuckoo aunt or small revelation everyone already knew about but never discussed. And that’s really all that “Home for the Holidays” is. A family gathers, some good and bad memories are made, and everyone returns to their regular lives. And while that makes for a very simple yet enjoyable movie, in its own unique way (for all of us at one time or another) it also makes for a Happy Thanksgiving.