By Craig Joseph
I’ve seen Home for the Holidays at least ten times, and yet, this Thanksgiving-dinner-with-the-family-gone awry still makes me wince. It’s hard to watch because it’s so real; rarely have characters been this raw, blemished and authentic on screen – and that’s why I love it (and them).
Sure, the movie is rife with outlandish comic moments: Aunt Glady’s flatulence and drunkenness, Tommy’s Polaroid violations and poor Joanne’s encounter with the turkey. But almost every time it inspires laughter, the movie turns on a dime, quickly eliciting gasps, heart pangs and knots in the throat.
This happens in large part because, despite all of their flaws, the Larsons are a truthful bunch. There’s very little sugar coating as they call things like they see them.
A tense exchange between two sisters:
“You don’t know the first thing about me.”
“Likewise, I’m sure. If I just met you on the street… if you gave me your phone number… I’d throw it away.”
“Well, we don’t have to like each other, Jo. We’re family.”
A mother, sad that her son has hidden his gay marriage from her, is silenced:
“Enough, Ma! You’re a pain in my ass. You have bad hair. But I like you a lot.”
“Well, you know me. I can’t change.”
“Believe me, neither can I, Ma.”
“Even as a little boy, you didn’t want us too close.”
The more we become acquainted with the family, the more we’re inclined to agree with their assertions about one another. Joanne and Claudia probably never will be friends. Tommy does use humor to avoid painful encounters in life. Adele is a nag from hell, but her hurt is real and legitimate. And over the course of two hours, others truths become apparent: Mother’s beauty is fading. Dad’s wondering if he wasted his life. The unloved spinster aunt has been treasuring an ancient memory in her heart. The oldest sister, desperate after being fired, acted crazily. And so on. I know these people. I am these people.
But what also rings true – as evidenced in the film’s final montage – is that these folks who struggle and contend with one another have also managed to preserve – somewhere – moments of love and affection. They’ve all created “family” a little differently – some within the confines of their biological relatives and some moving outside that circle. But they have experienced that connection somehow – even fleetingly.
I’ve certainly had seasons where my family of origin – as with Tommy – felt like the place where I was least known and understood. And I constructed a new support system accordingly. Like Joanne, I, at times, have practiced a slavish devotion to my family that resulted in bitterness and resentment. At my best moments, I’ve been able – like Claudia – to love my family in toto – flaws and messiness included – and to appreciate that – for better or worse – we love each other as best we can.
But I’ve been wondering lately what my family will look like. Yes, I understand that actually going on some dates will be involved, and my non-committal self is working up to that, but I’ve thought about it. How will my spouse and I love one another? What will thrill us about each other, and how will we drive each other crazy? How will we love our kids individually – in the way that each of them needs to be loved? Will they care for one another? When we age, will they care for us, and will we die confident that they’ll then stay connected to one another?
I actually think these things as I lay awake in bed at night. And, you know what? If Mrs. Robinson can pull it off, so can I.