They say you can't go home again, yet every year we make an attempt for the holidays. We walk into the house we grew up in, once a place where we managed to tolerate one another, now filled with loud voices slinging gossip and uninvited opinions across a beautifully decorated table. We'd love to believe the holidays resemble the cheerful occasions we so often see in movies, a chance to reconnect with distant relatives and share in the joyful spirit of the season. In reality, the experience falls somewhere between that formula and the dysfunction we see in movies like Jodie Foster's Home for the Holidays. While this sometimes exaggerated – but all too familiar – portrait of a family gathering for Thanksgiving might be off-putting to those who prefer the more artificial holiday fare, it's the realism of this movie that makes it so special.
Claudia Larson (Holly Hunter) has just been fired from her job, made a pass at her seventy-year-old ex-boss, and discovered her teenage daughter Kitt (Claire Danes) plans to lose her virginity. You'd think things couldn't be worse, except she's headed home to spend another dreaded Thanksgiving with her family. Cue the comedy and mayhem as her mother Adele (Anne Bancroft) utilizes every breath to pass judgment on everything Claudia does, from her job down to her parenting methods. Her father Henry (Charles Durning) is newly retired and happily living in his own little world. Enter mischievous and obnoxious brother Tommy (Robert Downey, Jr.) and his uninvited guest Leo Fish (Dylan McDermott), followed closely by the charming and senile Aunt Glady (Geraldine Chaplin). Throw in sister Joanne (Cynthia Stevenson) – jealously disapproving of every choice her siblings have ever made – her two spoiled kids, and her dull as paint husband Walter (Steve Guttenberg) and let the dysfunctional family feast begin.
The movie focuses purely on the Larsons and how their relationships have evolved throughout the years due to emotional and geographical distances. Director Jodie Foster throws us right into the fray, requiring we pay attention and read between the lines to decipher all the ongoing rifts and rivalries at play among the characters. Claudia and Tommy are obviously the closest among the siblings, often teaming up against the conservative Joanne, who just wants a little respect for being the only one to stay behind to take care of their aging parents. Mom and Dad seem more than happy to let their adult children duke it out without offering any guidance. Their method of parenting seems very much one of quiet acceptance and little acknowledgment, which becomes even more apparent whenever the topics of Tommy’s homosexuality and recent marriage are raised. It's through the performances that the family history unfolds and in the hands of this stellar cast it's easy to believe that they've been tossing these arguments and insults around for decades. Everyone talks over one another and while the subtleties of their affection may be lost on some, there are also a number of heartwarming moments to remind us that they truly love one another.
It's these moments that give us an understanding of why the family continues to come together each year in spite of the guaranteed turmoil. When Claudia happily looks on as her father grabs her mother for a kiss or a spontaneous dance around the living room, it's obvious that the two are still in love and enjoy each other’s company. Claudia and Tommy also have a genuine connection, even though he spends most of his time purposely annoying his sister, their devotion to each other is evident when they embrace during a quiet moment together after a heated encounter with Joanne. Poor Joanne appears to be the only one no one can stand to be around and she is a difficult character to like. Yet she seems content with the love of her husband and two children. While the chaos in the Larson house earns a lot of laughs, there are plenty of those sentimental moments we've come to love and expect from a holiday movie.
Home for the Holidays is a perfect representation of why they say you can’t go home again. Once you've left the nest and built your own it's difficult to return to the mentality of the person you were back then. Even Tommy eventually drops the obnoxious little brother routine and shows genuine sensitivity toward his family. As we get older it becomes harder to play the roles that kept us in line when we were young. Back when your siblings were your best playmates and your parents were just a shout away. We distance ourselves from our youth as we start our own families and learn to live without the one we once knew. Sadly, that distance stretches to our relationships as well and they become harder to maintain. There’s a heartbreaking moment when Claudia tells her sister, “We don’t have to like each other, Jo. We’re family.” That's the underlying sadness, not only in this movie, but in every family gathering. The reality that when it ends everyone's going home. Back to their separate lives and families. Back to that distance that's somehow become necessary before attempting to come together again.
The point is in the attempt to keep trying. That the Larsons continue to come together each year in spite of all the bickering and hurt feelings is what the holidays are really all about. If you're lucky, getting together with your family is something you can count on every year. It’s an occasion we too often take for granted. Sure, there's going to be turmoil, but there's bound to be some laughter as well. In a room full of clashing personalities that know each other so well, disagreements are unavoidable. Maybe this year, in the midst of that heated argument about politics or mashed potatoes, take a second to remember that you all used to make this work. Maybe during the holidays there's a small part of all of us still trying to recapture some semblance of the past. A time when we somehow managed to coexist under the same roof. When we weren't just visitors in our parent's house or each other’s lives. We were home.